Peer Specialists: Reaching Out with Understanding and Compassion

My name is Teresa Baker and I have lived with a serious mental illness for as long as I can remember. I know everyone’s experience with mental illness is different, but one thing we do share is that we fight invisible battles every day. That reality follows you through life.  Through every mundane thing, through every hard thing, and through happy times and bad. At first you try to hide it, then you make excuses for it. Ultimately, you have to face the truth of your symptoms and find a way through it.

As some of you know I have been with this company for about 15 years now. For the first 12 years or so, I worked in residential. I was drawn to the work. Having a family history of mental illness and living with my own symptoms over the years gave me a unique perspective for the mentally ill. I’ve always been able to find common ground with our consumers and understand their situations a little better than others who did not have personal experience. It was about 3 years ago when I met a Certified Recovery Specialist (CRS). We worked the same shift and we were able to share our personal experiences with mental illness. It was so nice having someone to talk to that knew what it was like to try to live a “normal” life and to fight through symptoms every day. That’s when she told me about becoming a CRS. Not long after that, I enrolled in the class and became a Certified Peer Specialist.  

I have always had shared experience with the clients, but my education taught me how to use my lived experience to better serve others. Gone was all that remained in me of the notion that I was the expert who was supposed to tell others how to live. For the first time, the difference between me and them, staff and client, just fell away. I came out of that class a different person. My eyes were opened to all of the wondrous possibilities that a Peer can offer to a fellow person who is suffering with symptoms and trying to go through some of the struggles I lived through. I have a new purpose. My new mission is to walk beside the people who come to us seeking help and safety and to let them know, I know. To brush the tears away and tell them they are not alone anymore. To walk beside them with empathy and support as they discover their own recovery path that will lead them to finding happiness and fulfillment. But most of all, to give them hope. I have come to know that even though my own struggle is ongoing, I can still be a beacon of hope to others who are feeling like they will never be able to reach their goals. I can still be living proof that coping skills and medications work, that bad days aren’t forever, and that their lives and dreams are worth fighting for! I walk beside my clients, I lift them up when they can’t do it themselves, and I inspire hope for the future when they are lost in the darkness.  I share so much with the people I work with, and they see me as someone they can trust to be on their side and to understand their struggles. This work, and these people, have made me a better person. They help me as much as I help them. I have found my purpose in this work and I know it is what I am meant to do. I am proud to be a peer to these wonderful people, and I no longer hide my illness in the shadows.
My name is Teresa Baker, and I battle Major Depression with Anxiety and Panic Disorder.

Illustration by Oliver Munday

Illustration by Oliver Munday

Mental health: There's an app for that.

Mary is a single parent who works hard to support herself and her two children, ages 4 and 7. In addition to her work at a bank, she attends church, visits her parents when she can, and tries to keep herself fit through exercise and diet. She dates on occasion and has friends she tries to see once in awhile.

Mary also experiences episodes of depression and anxiety. For the past two years she has been in recovery from alcohol addiction. It has been difficult to attend her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and see her therapist on any regular basis, but she does the best she can.  She would like to see her therapist more often, but just can’t find the time.  

According to SAMHSA’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) an estimated 43.6 million (18.1%) Americans ages 18 and up experienced some form of mental illness. In the past year, 20.2 million adults (8.4%) had a substance use disorder. Of these, 7.9 million people had both a mental disorder and substance use disorder, also known as co-occurring mental and substance use disorders.

Today Mary is feeling particularly tense and worried. She knows she tends to overreact and worry more than she needs to, but once she starts thinking about all of the things going on and what might go wrong she can’t seem to turn it off. She has been doing pretty good, and is proud of her progress and recovery from addiction. Since she stopped drinking and started therapy, her life is no longer in chaos. Still, she struggles with managing her mood and anxiety.

Mary takes out her smartphone and opens her myStrength app. She has already set the app up with shortcuts to helpful videos and tools that have been tailored to her own personal issues and challenges. She quickly pulls up the video she wants on reducing worry. Take a deep breath, focus on the here and now, interrupt the internal chattering, relax. The video helps guide Mary on the steps to take to relax and focus.

She reviews some of the things that she and her therapist have been working on. The app has been set up to remind her of how to manage her feelings and racing thoughts.  It is really helpful to have something to look at and not just try to remember everything talked about in her therapy sessions, especially when her anxiety seems to take over.

According to Monitor On Psychology (November, 2016), there are more than 165,000 health-related apps worldwide, helping users track their diet and exercise, monitor their moods, and even manage chronic diseases. Nearly 30 percent of these apps are dedicated to mental health (Novotney, 2016).

Examples of an affirmation on the myStrength app.

Examples of an affirmation on the myStrength app.

In May of this year Aspire made the web-based myStrength program and the mobile app version available to all of its employees. Clients with substance use disorders (SUD) were also provided access to both the web-based and smartphone versions. All clients at Aspire can sign up for myStrength at no charge.

Examples of a “feelings gauge” on the myStrength app.

Examples of a “feelings gauge” on the myStrength app.

myStrength provides videos, motivational content, brief articles, and many other tools for working on issues related to depression, anxiety, emotional trauma, and substance abuse. Information on topics ranging from anger management, parenting, PTSD, and the effects of different drugs is now available at the client’s fingertips.
Some of the tools ask a client to rate feelings, put in thoughts, create action plans, and monitor their successes. In this way, myStrength becomes a very individualized and personal tool.

The information a client shares in myStrength is absolutely confidential. Aspire does not collect any personal information entered into myStrength. While Aspire does track aggregate data on total number of clients using myStrength and on what problem areas seem to interest clients the most, no individual or personal information is tracked or traced to a specific person. This is true for employees as well.

In addition to the personal benefits of using myStrength, Aspire therapists, care coordinators, recovery coaches, and life skill trainers are discovering how myStrength can be a useful tool in “extending” the impact of treatment. While not a direct connection to the therapist (like a chat line or e-mail/messenger service), using myStrength helps keep the client connected to the focus of treatment and provides important motivation for success.

This extension of therapy means that at any time a client can simply log in to get personally tailored information and numerous tools directly related to their therapy goals. It provides coaching, reminders, and a library of information…. All in their pocket.

If a client does not have a smartphone or computer they can use a computer while in a session at Aspire. The clinician can work with the client to identify relevant content and print information to take home.

Aspire is continually looking for ways to enhance treatment and better serve an ever increasing client population. myStrength is a tool that does both.

The myStrength app is easy to navigate!

The myStrength app is easy to navigate!