When I was eighteen, like many young folks, I left my hometown in the coal fields of West Virginia to pursue a college degree. Energized by the prospect of being independent, meeting new people, and following my passion for religion and theology, I loaded my Chevy up and headed two hours north to a small college nestled in the mountains of West Virginia. College offered a fresh start — distancing me from a tough senior year in high school. I couldn’t articulate what I was experiencing, but I had an exhausting year of having to fight a little bit harder just to be happy. I chocked it up as “senioritis” and I was certain that an awesome college experience was just what I needed to break through the inertia of small town life and jumpstart my mood.
When I arrived on campus, I hit the ground running. I joined multiple clubs and groups, was academically engaged, and quickly became known on campus as the nice guy who smiles a lot, calling everyone “buddy” with a charming but nearly indiscernible southern accent. Things were panning out just as I had hoped.
A few months later, however, I experienced a dramatic and unexpected shift in my overall wellness. As quickly as my mood elevated, it plummeted. And throughout my college years I continued to struggle profoundly with my mental health. At any moment, I was either holding up a social veneer of perfection or reaching moments of utter desperation, driving me to earnestly seek help from anyone who would listen. And here’s the thing: lots of people tried to help me in college, and they sincerely meant well. But despite their attempts and heartfelt compassion, it was rare that I really felt understood. Eventually, I would connect with a friend, a chaplain, and a therapist — and the constellation of their support would propel me into recovery — a path I still tread ten years later.
One of the key themes of their support, and what made it effective for me, was a deep empathy, driven by their own personal experiences. Their compassionate approach would build a bridge of trust between us, and incrementally cut through my anxiety and paranoia. In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen wrote, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” As I look back on my experiences, I can clearly see that their understanding of pain, coupled with their modeling of hope, generated optimism in me that even amidst the most arid of conditions, I could come out of the desert. Basically, they really understood me, they guided me, and I had no doubt that they had my back.
That’s why I believe so strongly in growing and supporting effective peer services. Peer services are predicated on the idea that if someone really “gets you,” and shares lived experienced with you, they can connect with you in a way that inspires hope and encourages resilience. Studies demonstrate that peer support works, contributing to increased tenure in the community, and increased coping and empowerment. I have witnessed individuals break through the fortress of perceived limitations and chase after personal dreams, with support from authentic peers who have their back.
But providing peer support can be really difficult. As peers strive to assist other people in their struggles, they by human default may enter into that suffering, with real costs to their own wellness. And whether staff at community behavioral health organizations identify as peers or not, they grapple with the challenge of “use of self” and boundaries, as they juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities, bearing enormous accountability in a constantly-changing health care environment. They need skills, confidence, and emotional safety as they expend their own resources and energies to support the recovery of others. So the question becomes, how can we invest in those who are providing direct services? How can we really have their back so that they can give back?
One answer to that question is to make a serious commitment to the people who support the behavioral health workforce — supervisors. What energized me as a former direct service staffer and kept me moving in this field was a supervisor who had my back and helped me navigate the complexities of supporting the health of the individuals we served. My experience is consistent with what researchers from Gallup found —great employees stay or leave jobs based on their relationship with their direct supervisor. Bottom line, the research shows that a good relationship with a supervisor trumps money or mission when an employee is deciding whether to cut and run or stay the course in our field.
Strong supervisors can protect organizations from the costly “turnover tide,” which exacts a huge toll —lost productivity, time-consuming recruitment and ramp up efforts, and plummeting morale — on community behavioral health organizations. Staff turnover is also bad for the people we serve as it disrupts the continuity of their care. Strong supervisors must have the skills and confidence to cultivate staff morale, model strong boundaries, provide effective coaching, and leverage employees’ strengths, to protect organizations and communities from the impact of turnover.
This is what drove a team of many at the National Council to develop our new Mastering Supervision: Moving from Effective to Excellent curriculum, a one-day, in-person training designed for supervisors of the behavioral health workforce. Topics in the training include:
I am proud to join the faculty for this training, informed by my experience as a supervisor, an entry-level behavioral health staffer, and a person in recovery. You can register for a training with me here.
I have a poster in my workspace that reads, “I don’t want you to save me. I want you to stand by my side as I save myself.” What we all need is someone who has our back so we can look ahead and do what we do best. I’m grateful that my story has a lot of that: A friend, chaplain and therapist having my back when I was struggling, and supervisors having my back as I provided direct care. And now I work for an organization — the National Council — that has your back as you seek to provide high quality services, powered by a staff that feels truly supported.