For Barbara Watts, it was like “coming out of the closet.” For Silvia Perez, it makes her “feel free.” For the last seven months, Watts has worked for the county’s Department of Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services (ADMHS) on a crisis team; Perez, who serves on the department’s Partners in Hope program, has worked there for eight years. What both of them were referring to was a practice encouraged by ADMHS as it grows in popularity across the mental health field: having people with firsthand experience with mental illness work with mentally ill patients.
Known in the field as “peers,” such employees are believed to offer those suffering an empathetic ear, providing a perspective on what someone is going through either from their own experience or that of a loved one. The priority of such an approach is only going to heighten over at ADMHS in the next year, as the department recently won a $150,000 state grant — officially accepted by the Board of Supervisors in April — to offer more training for its peer personnel.
Last month, Watts, Perez, and four other peers — ADMHS boasts 46 full-time peer employees — sat down with The Santa Barbara Independent to share their thoughts on this approach to mental health treatment. Most spoke in general terms about their path traversing mental illness, either personally or via a friend or family member. But all expressed great enthusiasm at what the grant money will mean not only for their professional growth but also for the growth of peer support overall.
All echoed what Watts and Perez said: feeling able to disclose their own struggles reduces the stigma of mental illness both in the workplace and for the patients themselves, as they can see a person sitting in front of them who has been successful at riding the waves of recovery and not letting it be their be-all and end-all.
“I’m still getting treatment from the VA,” said Jose Nevarez, a veteran and peer recovery specialist who has worked for ADMHS for more than three years. “A lot of people in Santa Maria know who I am and what I’ve been through. When they see me, they feel more comfortable and they trust me — there’s a connection there.”
Nevarez said he hopes that more trainings focus on working with veterans. Others, including Perez, believe more training in working with Latino communities — where the stigma can be even greater, Perez said — is also needed here. Other ADMHS employees surveyed regarding the grant money suggested more training on overseeing support groups and helping clients pursue job opportunities. Statewide, there’s a push to create a peer certification program that could make such an approach more common.
A challenge that arises, the peers said, is in learning to connect with patients on a personal level while still maintaining some boundaries. The same challenge presents itself for peers working with doctors who may have previously treated them. Tina Wooton, who holds a managerial position at ADMHS, where she’s worked for six years, said that having to “switch hats” that way can occasionally be “a little tricky,” but, she and others said, they have learned how.
As much as that can prove a balancing act, Perez said, it is all part of the beauty of peer support. The more peers who work in the field — which is expected to expand in Santa Barbara County as the department’s crisis team grows — the more patients see that the stigma of suffering from mental illness can be a thing of the past. “That we are doing this interview with you — have you seen anything like this before?” Perez asked, to laughs from her coworkers. “It’s a big thing.”