County-funded training expands number of peer-support specialists to share ‘been there, got better’ message

Annie Ross has a job that many residents likely don’t know exists. While she’s not a therapist or an otherwise traditionally licensed social worker, her job is to help people with mental health or substance abuse problems understand that they can recover and have a self-sustaining life.

A main qualification for the job is to have made that recovery yourself.

Ross for years has suffered from bipolar disorder. About five years ago, her therapist suggested that she become something called a “peer support specialist.” She took the training and spent four years working for the Johnson County Jail before starting at her current position with Lawrence’s Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

At that time, Ross was one of only five trained peer-support specialists in Douglas County. But since the first of the year that has changed dramatically. Douglas County has spent $20,000 in the last three months to train 20 county residents to become peer-support specialists.

Many of those new trainees are expected to get jobs with local agencies — in part supported by Douglas County taxpayer funds — to help provide a positive example to people who are trying to recover from mental health or drug or alcohol problems.

They do it not by dwelling on the many struggles that they overcame as part of the mental health or substance abuse disorders. Instead, they focus on the future.

“The first thing they tell you in training is we’re not going to talk about your experiences with mental illness,” she said. “We’re going to talk about (helping) people . . . get beyond this, that they can get better and they can still achieve things in life.”

Expanding talent pool

Of the 20 who went through the training, 14 have passed the certification exam needed for employment, said Bob Tryanski, Douglas County’s director of behavioral health projects. They now form a pool of talent available for Bert Nash, DCCCA, the Lawrence Community Shelter and other agencies.

“Up until now, organizations like Bert Nash would hire peer-support specialists and then send them to Wichita to receive training,” he said. “So getting trained was dependent on getting hired. With the county peer-support cadre project, we have provided people training before they have been offered a job. With one training, we’ve gone from about five certified peer specialists in the county to now 19.”

Having trained specialists available is important because county commissioners agreed to raise property taxes last year, in part, to fund more mental health positions in the county, such as the peer-support specialists. The county added $1.9 million to the 2018 budget — which saw a 1.547 mill levy increase — to fund additional behavioral health projects. More opportunities will be created if county voters approve a half-cent in sales tax this spring as a part of a referendum that would fund mental health services and a $44 million expansion of the Douglas County Jail.

Among those completing the February training were those with histories of various mental illnesses, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress from military service and those who had attempted suicide, Tryanski said.

Lawrence resident Deb Peterson completed the February training and is waiting on her results from the required certification test. She, too, has struggled with bipolar disorder, an illness that runs in her family. A 34-year-old son with the disorder committed suicide, which she said drove her to suicidal depression.

She would now like to work in some kind of suicide-prevention capacity, she said.

Crisis connections

Peers can fit into support roles anywhere along the recovery process, but they are very helpful when available for those in crisis situations, Tryanski said.

“There’s a big difference when starting the process in getting people engaged and committed to pursuing treatment if the first contact point is someone who has been there before,” he said. “Often, peers can create a connection and bond where there might be more trust, and it’s an opportunity for ongoing support.”

Peer-support specialists, or recovery mentors, as those trained for substance abuse work are called, do much the same kind of work as case managers, but from the perspective of their lived experience, Tryanski said. In addition to offering encouragement, they help clients connect to additional treatment, find housing, gain employment or secure other needs.

County funds will support several of the positions to be part of the $397,000 multi-agency integrated behavioral health crisis response team now being formed at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. The team will include peer-support specialists from Bert Nash and recovery mentors from DCCCA and Heartland Regional Alcohol and Drug Assessment Center, Tryanski said.

The involvement of Bert Nash helps make the program sustainable because mental health centers can receive Medicaid reimbursement for peer support, which will provide some of funding for salaries.

Josh Reese, Bert Nash director of adult services, said he did not yet know how many peers the agency would hire for the team because its structure was being worked out with LMH’s hiring last month of Derrick Hurst as the team’s director and Bert Nash’s hiring of a supervisor of the peer-support specialists. The team with the peers should be operational in about two months, he said.

DCCCA already has recovery mentors who are the first contacts for those admitted with substance abuse problems to the five LMH behavioral health emergency room beds, Tryanski said. The recovery mentors set up appointments for those willing to seek further treatment and even drive their clients to regional detoxification centers. The county started a program in partnership with DCCCA this year that makes use of unused beds in detoxification centers in nearby counties.

Ross said although peer work can be stressful, it can also be cathartic because of the focus on recovery.

“You don’t dwell on the negative but the positive things the client can and will achieve,” she said. “From my experience working with people with mental illness, that’s a message they’ve never heard or considered. You can help some people survive and share the joy they can have a better life. It’s a good way to remind yourself that you can make positive change.”