A few years ago, Chris Shaw was in addiction treatment at the Minneapolis VA when he met a man who changed his life.
“He came in and told a story about being a veteran, about how he went through the ranks and how he struggled with addiction, and how he made his way through to the life he has today,” Shaw recalled. “Here was somebody who knew he was in a room of people like him and he knew he could help them by explaining his shared experiences. He wasn’t a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a counselor. He was just a regular person, a peer. It was very powerful to me and the other participants to have this guy open up like that just so he would provide some comfort to us.”
The man was a peer support specialist, a person in recovery from substance use disorder and mental illness who had been trained to provide support to people with shared life experiences.
Shaw was impressed by the power of the support specialist’s plain-spoken, direct message.
“I thought, ‘How did he get to do this? How did he get a job like this?’ That to me was amazing,” he recalled. “Later, when we had a minute, we talked more about his job, and after I graduated from treatment I told him, ‘I want to know more about what you do. I want to do this.’ ”
That conversation set Shaw off on a path that eventually landed him in a room filled with other people just like him, ordinary folks who’d parlayed their varied and challenging life experiences into a spot in a demanding two-week training program for certified peer-support specialists.
The program, which is funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), is designed to provide participants with the tools they need to give peer counseling and support to people facing a range of life challenges. Program participants must be 21, have a GED and have a mental health diagnosis. They also must have been in recovery for at least one year.
In Minnesota, certified peer support specialists work in a variety of paid positions — including in hospitals, addiction treatment centers, psychiatric clinics, homeless shelters and community behavioral health hospitals. Their services are billable under Medical Assistance for an array of rehabilitative mental health services.
“Certified peer support specialists offer something that other mental health professionals can’t,” said Jode Freyholtz-London, executive director of Wellness in the Woods, a mental health consumer-run organization, and associate facilitator for the peer specialist program. “They have been through it all, and they understand how to help others work their way through a range of problems.”
Freyholtz-London led the certified peer support specialist training session that Shaw attended this spring at Wellstone Center in St. Paul. The trainings have been state funded since 2009, when DHS provided grant funding for the program.
Freyholtz-London explained that applicants like Shaw go through a rigorous selection process before they are accepted into the training program.
“This program is not for everyone,” she said.
Once an applicant has been accepted, the real work begins. The training program lasts, Freyholtz-London said, “for two intense weeks. We start at 8:30. We end at 4:30. Plus I send participants home with three or four hours of homework every night. It is actually comparable to three college credits jammed into two weeks.”
The intensity of the program “separates the chaff from the wheat,” Freyholtz-London said. “There are some folks who say, ‘No. Not going to do this,’ and they drop out.”
Shaw was determined to earn his certification. He said the program was a lot of work, but it was well worth it.
“It feels like you relive your lifetime though those two weeks,” he said. “You have to face your demons and say, ‘This is why I’m here. Now how can I take what I’ve learned and help someone else?’”
Shaw’s class of certified peer support specialists was a diverse bunch, Freyholtz-London said.
“We had a range of faith perspectives, diverse cultures. We had people who were working, people who weren’t working. We had a standup comedian,” she laughed. “We even had a Bigfoot hunter.” The range of life experience and interests among the students reflected the range of people living with mental illness, Freyholtz-London said. In the end, the differences made the group stronger: “Those unique perspectives all came together to support each other. People who didn’t know each other became family.”
Sunny Forrest works with the homeless community. He heard about the certified peer support training program from a colleague who thought it would be a great fit with his skills and background.
“I was a certified recovery specialist prior to this and so this new certification helps me in my career,” Forrest said, adding that he has a history of mental health and addiction problems. “I currently work with homeless people on harm reduction and addiction problems. Most of the people I see also have a mental health diagnosis. So this training helps me understand how to talk with them and how to be with them as well as understand my own mental health diagnosis.”
Anne Thomas works in a group home. She decided to complete the training to improve her listening and problem-solving skills at work.
“A lot of times a resident will come to us with their problems and staff will just tell them what to do,” she said. “Since the training, I’ve been learned to say things like, ‘What are some options you can use to solve this?’ And residents seem of happy, like ‘I can come up with some ideas’ and I will support them in that.”
A trained social worker, Charles Dorsey decided to take the peer specialist certification after a mental health crisis caused him to put his career on hold. He’d been working in a series of jobs when a former coworker reached out.
“He said, ‘There’s this new position we’re going to be hiring for called certified peer specialist. We think it would be perfect for you,’” Dorsey said. “I’d heard a little bit about it and so then I looked into it.” He was thrilled to hear about a program that would show him how to help others by sharing his own experiences.
“The fact that now I can help someone else through sharing what I’ve been through is just so amazing. I decided to get this certification.”
Freyholtz-London said that many people in the training program feel the same way.
“As a community of people who have a lived experience with mental illness, for so long we have been considered not only by ourselves but also by our community as damaged people who are unable to give back,” she said. “With this training, we have an opportunity for two solid weeks to celebrate our experiences, to learn how to help others. How often do you get to do that?”
The certification program takes the shame away from the diagnosis, and turns it into something much more powerful: marketable skills and experiences that can be harnessed to help others recover.
“There are not many jobs where your life experience gets to be on your résumé,” Freyholtz-London said, “but that’s definitely the case with peer support specialists. My life experience is my calling card. It’s what I use to help other people.”
Certified peer specialists understand that their life experiences make them able to help clients in ways that their “nondiagnosed” coworkers just can’t.
Take Forrest. He works with Hennepin County’s DART program, a diversionary addiction treatment program for homeless people.
“We mainly deal with very high utilizers of the ER and detox,” he said. His life experience — combined with his new peer specialist training — helps him connect with the people he serves.
“Today I interviewed a guy that was on his 22nd time in dotox so far this year,” Forrest said. “He has a strong alcohol addiction. He’s homeless. He’s been through 12 treatment centers.” The client, whose brain function has been affected by his excessive drinking, told Forrest he didn’t to go back to treatment, quit drinking or move to a shelter.
“The peer part of the job is so important because if someone like him talks to a normie about his alcoholism, they’re really not going to understand,” Forrest explained. “But if I work with someone who has a mental health issue, I’ve been there, I’ve been through it. If they talk to me about hearing voices, if they talk about the stigma they’re facing, I understand that. I think they are more likely to open up to me and talk about the real personal things that they need to talk about so that we can get some of their issues solved.”
Dorsey has had the same kind of experiences at work.
“I’m on a team called the Access Team,” he said. “I bring a unique perspective. A coworker might not know how to connect with somebody who’s not doing that well mentally, but because I have that personal experience, I might be able to really connect with them. I can honestly say, ‘I know what you’re going through.’ And that helps.”
That skill and understanding is exactly what certified peer support specialists bring to the table, Freyholtz-London said. Demand for program graduates is growing, as employers are beginning to understand just how peers can make the recovery process better.
“There are more and more work opportunities becoming available for people with this certification. When we launched the program, providers didn’t always know how to use our grads. But it’s catching on. People understand that peer support is unique and effective. These days, employers are looking specifically for our skills.”