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.
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.”
More coverage: Douglas County votes on jail expansion, behavioral health campus• May 14, 2018 — County clerk reports that about 40 percent of Proposition 1 ballots have been returned by eve of deadline
• May 9 — Latest debate in sales tax election: How far can the county go in pushing for a ‘yes’ vote?
• May 8 — Proposition 1 brochures removed from County Treasurer’s Office counter after citizen complains
• May 7 — Proposition 1 ballots coming in at ‘impressive’ rate; county clerk says turnout could exceed 45 percent
• April 30 — Jail referendum fact check: A look at what both sides aren’t saying about the heated campaign
• April 30 — Midcase mental health evaluations for Douglas County jail inmates have increased
• April 30 — How much is violent crime up in Douglas County? Either a lot or very little, depending on which statistics you look at
• April 24 — A look at what is included in the proposed Douglas County Jail expansion
• April 23 — Americans for Prosperity campaigning against sales tax in county referendum
• April 22 — At forum, Douglas County commissioner explains 'what if' option if sales tax referendum fails
• April 22 — Get ready to vote: Questions and answers on the Douglas County half-cent sales tax ballot question
• April 22 — 4,198 days in: Meet the Douglas County Jail’s 5 longest residents
• April 20 — County says Justice Matters using wrong law to try to force mental health vote; group plans to start petition drive on Saturday
• April 18 — Douglas County leaders learn about first participant in diversion program for female inmates; Thellman cites Constitution on jail expansion issue
• April 17 — Average daily population at Douglas County Jail fell slightly in 2017 to reverse 5-year trend
• April 17 — Douglas County counselor: Meeting with Justice Matters about proposed petition would not be appropriate
• April 17 — Despite campaign literature to the contrary, county officials confirm there’s no legal finding that Douglas County Jail must be expanded
• April 16 — Douglas County legal counselor finds proposed Justice Matters petition legally invalid, but group says it can be fixed
• April 16 — What you will see and hear on a Douglas County Jail tour
• April 15 — Speakers at criminal justice, behavioral health forum look beyond jail expansion, crisis center
• April 14 — County-funded training expands number of peer-support specialists to share ‘been there, got better’ message
• April 11 — Criminal justice group’s spokeswoman says expanding Douglas County Jail would contribute to nation’s mass incarceration problem
• April 9 — Douglas County Commission may be forced to put new mental health, tax plan on November ballot
• March 25 — Increasing population at Douglas County jail at odds with national trend
• March 22 — Advocacy group forms to support county referendum on jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• March 21 — Douglas County District Court chief judge defends court’s processes, agrees serious felony crime is increasing
• March 12 — County’s pretrial release, home-arrest programs diverting large numbers from jail, but not enough to prevent overcrowding
• March 11 — DA was more likely to grant a diversion in 2017, but number of people seeking them declined
• March 6 — Douglas County Sheriff’s Office offering jail tours, presentations in advance of spring referendum
• March 5 — Online behavioral health care site available free to county residents pending referendum outcome
• March 4 — Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says
• March 3 — Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion
• March 1 — Town Talk: Here comes the opposition: Four groups join forces to campaign against Douglas County jail expansion
• Feb. 21 — Douglas County will face tough choices on jail expansion if tax referendum fails, official says
• Feb. 20 — Building jail expansion in phases would take 16 years, $6M to $8M a year, county says
• Feb. 19 — Town Talk: Fact checking county commissioners on assertion that big budget cuts will come if voters reject jail/mental health sales tax
• Feb. 17 — Activist leaders blast proposed expansion of Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 12 — As voters consider $44M expansion, report finds some changes could reduce overcrowding at Douglas County Jail
• Feb. 7 — Douglas County Commission to schedule forums on jail and mental health referendum, provide information on what happens if voters reject
• Feb. 4 — Johnson County built a larger jail and now has 300 unused beds; Douglas County can't use them
• Jan. 30 — State law won't allow Douglas County commissioners to campaign for passage of jail, mental health sales tax
• Jan. 24 — Douglas County Commission approves language for ballot question on jail expansion, behavioral health campus
• Jan. 22 — Following the money: Douglas County partners beefing up behavioral health services with funding
• Jan. 17 — Douglas County Commission agrees to put jail expansion, behavioral health campus on same ballot question
• Jan. 16 — Town Talk: Many residents want to vote separately on jail, mental health projects; there's a way, but county unlikely to go there
• Jan. 16 — Douglas County commissioners ready to ask voters to approve jail expansion, behavioral health initiatives
• Jan. 15 — 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court
• Jan. 10 — Price tag of behavioral health campus, services estimated at $5.76 million annually
• Jan. 8 — No insurance and hooked on drugs? Chances are, you won't find treatment in Douglas County
• Jan. 5 — Town Talk: A look at how high Lawrence's sales tax rate would be if voters approve increase for jail, mental health
• Jan. 3, 2018 — Due to misunderstanding, county now says jail expansion, mental health projects must be on same sales tax ballot
• Dec. 31, 2017 — Undersheriff says 2016 annual report shows overcrowding threatening jail safety, re-entry programming
• Dec. 18 — Behavioral health campus plan grew from recognition of housing's role in crisis recovery
• Dec. 13 — Services that will be part of behavioral health campus to be introduced next month at LMH
• Dec. 13 — Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan
• Nov. 30 — Douglas County commission agrees to move ahead with $44 million jail expansion design
• Nov. 26 — Sheriff's Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• Nov. 8 — Douglas County Sheriff's Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds
• Oct. 4 — Jail expansion, crisis center would require public vote on new taxes, officials say
• Sept. 20 — Estimated cost to expand Douglas County Jail jumps by millions of dollars
• July 26 — Douglas County Commission to forward report on future jail population to architects
• July 16 — Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding
• June 26 — Jail, mental health initiatives help drive proposed tax increase in 2018 county budget
• May 14 — Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests
• April 5, 2017 — Sheriff urges Douglas County Commission to make jail expansion a priority