As a deputy project director for SAMHSA’s Bringing Recovery Supports to Scale Technical Assistance Center Strategy, I sometimes find myself feeling removed from the day-to-day work performed by my colleagues providing direct service to those individuals who must cope with, and exist through, the challenges that arise from mental health and/or addiction issues.
This is challenging for me. I am a person with lived experience whose life dramatically changed for the better because of interaction with direct service providers. I’ve also done my share of service delivery and know firsthand that the real experts are those sitting across from me, hoping that I will be able to provide the answers that will assist in guiding them out of homelessness and into a better life. Truth be told, the best answers for that assistance often come from the individuals themselves. As a direct service provider, my job was simply to reflect what people already knew back to them in a way that reinforced and validated their own knowledge. The people I worked with taught me far more than I could teach them.
So, it is with great enthusiasm and excitement that I greet any occasion to reconnect with direct service providers so that I may learn, refresh my understanding, and share in the joys and the challenges of the work they do and I am passionate about.
Recently, I had this opportunity as organizer of a SAMHSA Homeless and Housing Resource Network (HHRN) webinar, “Increasing Consumer Involvement in Planning, Implementing, and Assessing Homeless Programs.” Three direct service providers shared perspectives on operationalizing their work as Peer Specialist, Recovery Coach, and Tenant Advisory Board Consumer Specialist.
Each presenter articulated not just the standard information concerning the roles of these specialties but, more importantly, their motivation for—and their understanding of—the raison d'etre of each position. As peers who entered their professional roles with a desire to serve and “give back” to their communities, the insight and perspective they shared offered a deeper, more personalized sense of the responsibilities the titles carry, as well as the intense level of commitment each of them bring to the role.
Their passion and commitment came through in dramatic fashion as the presenters completed the discussion portion of the webinar and began answering questions posed by the audience. I felt pride—and a twinge of envy—as I listened to their personal stories of engagement; of working side by side with those individuals who continue their struggle for housing, for recovery, for hope; and of application of their own lived experience as catalysts for providing, as William White calls it, “experientially credentialed” guidance.
Their responses were potent reminders of the importance of peer contributions in behavioral health, and how essential they are to the field and to the constituency we serve. Peers’ additions to the overall treatment protocols established by treatment teams complement clinicians and professionals in a manner that provides insight, balance, and dignity.
The issues of homelessness and the journey of recovery are as complex and unique as the individuals who experience them. The contributions of peers in assisting them and those who endeavor to serve them are important for many reasons. They provide an important perspective for the rest of the team. Furthermore, peers providing direct service stand as a testament to the ability for recovery. They provide hope and inspiration that simply cannot be conveyed by a non-peer. This in no way diminishes the incredible importance of the professionals in the treatment team. Rather, in my opinion, it provides the impetus for the mandatory inclusion of peers in a treatment team construct.
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