How Did I get Involved?
It was 3 a.m on a particularly difficult night. I was 20 years old. I found myself struggling with sleep, battling with rapid thoughts, and frustrated over my financial situation. A lot of us in the mental health community have dealt with nights like this, I’m sure. my desperation lead me to the Craigslist Job Board where scams glorified work from home jobs and door-to-door food delivery jobs. I didn’t have a very good car back then, nor did I have any secure or reliable internet connection, so both of those jobs were out of the question. I was only lucky that I stumbled across Second Story.
Second Story boasted itself as a peer-led respite house–I had to look up the word Respite–and said that it was looking for individuals from the community who had lived experience. What was lived experience? Mental health distress, diagnosis, and/or involvement in the county mental health system. I had distress and diagnosis and it paid $13 dollars an hour, a whole 3 dollars more than I’d made at the local amusement park. In my manic state, I essentially said “Fuck it” and applied.
This is kind of an unusual story in that the majority of people who got involved with second story either volunteered, had worked there in the past, or stayed there in the past, or were there when it first opened.
When it first opened, I think I’d been a junior or sophomore in high school.
But what really drove me toward peer support wasn’t the idea that I could get paid talking to people and get paid to be a mental health consumer, it was the idea that an alternative treatment to a medical-model made a real-life difference in people’s experience. I wanted to be apart of this, see it with my own eyes.
Through this opportunity, I’ve been to conferences on coercive treatment, been featured on Mad in America, experienced the Pool of Consumer Champions (the largest peer organization in California), helped train peers who were opening their own peer respite, told my story in front of a panel of clinicians and mental health workers, and received training in Motivational Interview, Intentional Peer Support, Mindfulness, and Trauma Informed Care, all without a finished college degree. Working in peer support has done nothing but help my individual growth, show me what true compassion is, and help shift my worldview out of the dark dungeon it was in. I learned about people, became interested in their story and their being, and we walked together, side by side, across whatever fire brews. We are a team and we manage together.
How Can You Get Involved?
It’s not as hard as it seems, although sometimes it can be difficult to break through. Many states (in the U.S) have what’s called Peer Specialist Certification. These are state funded certifications that show you have completed a specific amount of hours of training and therefore are certified to use your skills to walk through someone’s experience with them. California is one of those states that has no state funded certification, as the bill has not yet passed legislation, but there are different regional certifications that you can get that still provide some training and experience.
Now, I never had any of that. I was just some 20 year old punk hearing voices without knowing they were voices, with so much anxiety I’d shake at the thought of doing something out of my routine, who couldn’t keep a clean room and was pretty sure she had undiagnosed autism. I got lucky.
There are many easier ways to get involved, though. NAMI, the national whatever on whatever, does Peer-to Peer classes and groups where your involvement could lead to volunteerism or employment. (Sorry NAMI, I never remember what you’re called, and I don’t ascribe to the idea of mental illness). They’re great to become apart of the community and get to network in your area while also getting support for yourself.
If you are in an area where peer respites are a thing, you can always get involved with one of them. Call the warmline and inquire. Here is a list of some Peer Respites.
If you don’t see your state on that list, try google instead.
There are also smaller peer-run organizations that are always, always looking for volunteers or workers or drivers or someone to just come in and make a difference. Again, try googling it for your area!
If you’re worried about the impact it may have on your social security benefits, just remember that peer places are run by PEERS. They understand. A good peer place will create a mutual schedule, one that works for you and one that works for them.
How Much Training Do I Need?
This of course depends on the organization or respite house you’re working with. Second Story has an umbrella company, one that oversees the house, so we recieve paid trainings with other clinicians and mental health staff. Some respite houses are entirely peer run, meaning they own their house and all the expenses acquired. Grants and donations usually fund the whole of these houses which means trainings may be specific and limited.
If you hate role-plays as much as I do, just remember everyone is learning and it’s okay to sound like a complete idiot.
I hate group role-plays, I should say. One-on-one role plays are fine.
The point being, if you have social anxiety, you WILL be role-playing and you WILL either get comfortable with it or never get comfortable with it and you have to practice accepting one or the other.
Do I Have To Be A Peer Counselor?
No. There are different types of jobs peers can do with trainings and certifications and experience. You can work in a hospital, for example, as a peer specialist, running groups or just walking around and talking to some of the people. If you’ve been in a hospital your self, you can relate to them and just be a general kind person to talk to. If you’ve been in bad hospitals, you know that often you are ignored or seen as dumb or treated with disrespect. You get the chance to be that one person who treats another human as a human.
You can be a driver, you can be an errand runner, you could even work to help people with mental health diagnoses find jobs. You are not limited to being a counselor.
I, for example, am going to train as a NeuroFeedback Technician this next coming month. I will be hooking people up to electrodes and skull caps and watching their brain waves as they complete training tasks. I will talk with them, relate to them a little, gather information, while also working with technology and understanding the results of said trainings. I would not have been able to get this job, pre-bachelor’s degree, without all of the 5 years of experience I have in peer support.
The point is, if you’re interested in this kind of work, you will find it. We’re always needing people just like you to be a constant, familiar, kind face for those brothers and sisters who are still struggling deeply. We need people with all sorts of backgrounds, all kinds of experience, and of all racial ethnicities.
We need YOU.
Until next time.
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