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Pennsylvania’s Peer Specialist Initiative: An Idea Whose Time Has Come!

I am proud to say that I am among one of the first graduating classes of Pennsylvania’s Certified Peer Specialist Initiative. For those of you who are not familiar with this program, it involves the training of mental health consumers, in preparation for becoming paraprofessionals for the mental health recovery movement. This concept of mental health consumers a paraprofessional, actively engaged in the care of their peers with serious mental illness, has been met with both praise and criticism. Supports assert that mental health consumers are naturally qualified to become healers and supporters of their peers living with serious mental illness. Just as persons living or surviving cancer receives great comfort from those who have had some success with living and serving similar circumstances. Critics on the other hand suggest that persons with serious mental illness are so compromised by their illness that they cannot possibly fulfill the role of paraprofessionals. I would like to help to put to rest this debate with the following true story.

Although I struggled through my formal education it was not until my mid-20s that I suffered my first onset of serious mental illness. Specifically, I experienced a dark depression, that lead to my first psychiatric hospitalization.

Having worked in the public mental health system for a few years following my graduate work at university, I chose what I thought was the best, most modern, inpatient unit available in my small Northwestern community. It is gone know because the profit margin for the non-profit psychiatric unit became to thin. Apparently there is more money to be made fixing sick hearts, ironic if you thing about it.

I was admitted on the weekend so I didn’t get to see, or for that matter get to know whom my doctor was until a few days later. Right off I found it strange that any other time I had been admitted though the emergency room, I got to see a doctor, and start treatment in the mater of a few minutes, as apposed to days. Perhaps, this is because the doctors and nurses can’t see or relate to the pain of mental illness, as much as, they can if someone comes in bleeding to death.

I was given a room, and pair blue and white striped pajamas, to ware out on the floor. I quietly took my place on one of the many couches, and with my peers stared at the glow of the big screen TV. The hour passes slowly, as we all sat in silence, each of us suffering in a different way. The nurses and mental health technicians seem to power walk through the room on the hour. I had retained my cheap watch, and I can tell you with confidence it was on the hour literally. The rest of the time the staff peered at us over a high counter and through a glass window.

Then out of the blue came Shawn. He was a person that I had once looked after in a community outpatient treatment program and group home. Shawn was younger than me, but we had attended the same high school. He had the poor fortune to be diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia. His symptoms were very profound and disabling. Shawn perhaps could have been best described as one of God’s innocents. He also was strangely brave, and most of all unabsorbed and caring.

Shawn being Shawn, he walked up to me and knelt on one knee at the arm of the couch I was sitting in. He said with a deeply concerned expression, “Brian what happened? What is wrong?” I slowly replied that I was having a little trouble with depression, holding back some because after all I was Shawn’s care taker, not the other way around. I was worried I would upset him if I shared more. Still it felt wonderful to be asked, and to be given the opportunity to talk back to a genuinely concerned person. Shawn then said, “Brian it’s going to be OK, I will pray for you.” As I shared Shawn was a very ill young man, and an innocent. I happened to know that he struggled through high school in special education programming. But I will share with you I came to have an unshakable trust in Shaw’s prediction of a prognosis.

Just then a psychiatric nurse approached our huddle and sharply told Shawn, “leave him alone.” Shawn being the gentle soul that he was, simply hung his head, and retreated to his room. The nurse got her wish. I was left alone with my illness for the next 48 hours. No medication, no group or individual therapy, no meaningful interaction with the highly trained staff. The most professional interaction I had came at the end of each shift when the mental health technicians ordered me to the front desk, and in front of the whole floor questioned me as to my symptoms, in a fashion akin to a loud interrogation. I soon realized it was not an indication of their caring, but simply born of their need to fill up the log with something before their shift ended.

In closing, I would like to make the case that the time has come for Certified Peer Specialists in the State of Pennsylvania. Because as I have shared the greatest healer I have ever encountered in my 20 years experience working in the public mental health system, was another peer.

Sadly, Shawn is no longer with us. He tragically passed while being restrained at our regional state hospital. Clearly, a young man that pure and good was not meant to suffer long in this world. God speed Shawn, I am going to be ok, just like you promised.

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