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Ask the Expert


September Ask the Expert

Leah Harris

09 Peer Recovery Support

Ask the Expert: 

Leah Harris is a mother, activist, writer, and a person with a psychiatric history. She is also the daughter of two parents who were diagnosed with severe mental illness, both of whom died very young as a result of their disabilities. This depth of personal experience fuels Leah’s unstoppable commitment to ensuring human rights and a meaningful life in the community for people experiencing emotional distress and extreme states. Leah has been a nationally recognized leader in the consumer/survivor movement for over a decade. She has written and spoken widely about her own experiences of trauma and healing, and as a family member of people diagnosed with mental health issues. She is currently communications and development coordinator at the National Empowerment Center, consults on trauma-informed practice for the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD), and on suicide prevention with the Center for Dignity, Recovery, and Stigma Elimination. She is also technical director of Madness Radio, a monthly podcast featuring new and innovative perspectives on mental health. Leah lives in Arlington, VA with her 7 year-old son.

1) Question: What does it mean to heal from a mental condition? I will always have the condition, but I have certainly struggled and had a difficult life because of it. I’ve just started working with a peer support center in my area and they use the word ‘heal’ a lot. Can you tell me or describe to me what it might look or feel like?

Answer: That’s such a terrific question, and unfortunately there is no simple answer. The experience of healing will not look the same for any two people, because we are all unique individuals with unique life experiences. That being said, in my experience, healing has involved acquiring or building on skills to help me more successfully manage the ups and downs of life that used to paralyze me in the past. For example, for someone who hears voices that are distressing, it might mean that they have learned tools and skills to work with the voices and to keep them from interfering with the ability to work, have fulfilling relationships, maintain housing, etc. Recovery does not mean that we will never make a mistake or that we will never struggle again, but rather that we are empowered to seek support when we need it, and to practice skills to work through the challenging times. The key is that we do not have to do this alone! Ask people at your peer support center what healing looks like for them. You can map out a vision of what you would like your life to look like moving forward, and as you heal you can see the progress you are making towards your own personal vision and goals.

Many of us who have mental health conditions are also trauma survivors, and unresolved trauma may interfere with our ability to heal. Healing for trauma survivors may involve looking at our trauma histories with a supportive peer or other support professionals. Here is a document that may help you to determine if trauma is an area for you to examine, and outlines some practices people have found useful to heal from trauma: http://www.nasmhpd.org/docs/publications/EngagingWomen/PeerEngagementGuide_Color_CHAPTER1.pdf.

2) Question: My son is being released from prison in a few months and I want to help him stay in recovery. What can I do now to prepare for his return? What kinds of community services should I be looking for to connect him with when he gets out?

Answer: I wish I knew what city or state you live in, as the available supports can vary widely from state to state. Generally, I would start by talking to your son right now (if he is open to it) and ask him what his goals, hopes, and dreams are upon leaving prison. Depending on what his goals are, together you can seek out local resources for supported employment, supported education, housing services, substance use support, or trauma-informed services.

Some community peer-run organizations have re-entry support groups designed specifically for people leaving the criminal justice system. If you have a peer-run program in your area, ask them if they have any re-entry services or peers on staff with lived experience of being in the criminal justice system. Here is a list of peer-run organizations by state to get you started: http://www.power2u.org/consumerrun-statewide.html.

Most importantly, your son needs you to express clearly and often that you believe in him and his ability to recover a meaningful life in the community. Avoid focusing on the past, and try instead to focus on his unique strengths and support him to develop a hopeful vision for the future.

3) Question: I’ve been in recovery for 10 months now and couldn’t have done it without the support of other people in recovery. I’d like to become a recovery coach. Is there an amount of time that I should be in recovery for before I start down this road? Is there any kind of requirement about how much time one has to have been in recovery?

Answer: I am so pleased to hear that you’re on a path of healing and recovery today, and have found a supportive community. If you are feeling inspired to be a recovery coach, by all means, go for it! Since peer support is all about “mutuality,” by supporting others, you will continue to help yourself on your own recovery journey. Peer support is truly a win-win for everyone!

I can’t speak to any certification requirements in your state specifically, but generally if you feel ready and excited about being a recovery coach, that should be the main requirement. (If you are going to be helping people specifically with substance use issues, there may be a recommended or required amount of clean/sober time.) The important thing is just to keep taking excellent care of yourself, because that is how you will be able to be of greatest service to others!

4) Question: Where should people who live in rural areas look first to try to find peer support organizations or programs?

Answer: I certainly do sympathize, as it can be tough to find peer support organizations in rural areas. If you have computer access, I would definitely start there. Here is a list of peer support organizations by state: http://www.power2u.org/consumerrun-statewide.html; definitely contact one if it exists in your state and ask for their suggestions. Centers for Independent Living (CILs) can also be a great resource for people with physical and/or psychiatric disabilities; here is a directory of CILs listed by state: http://www.ilru.org/html/publications/directory/index.html. Another option is to connect up with a peer-run warmline for support; in addition to providing immediate peer support, peer warmline staff may know of available organizations or resources in your state or area. Here is a list of warmlines by state: http://www.warmline.org/. Other options include online support groups, discussion forums, and connecting with other peers via telecommunications technologies such as Google Hangouts or Skype. Here is an article which may give you some ideas for exploration in your area: http://www.peersnet.org/blog/2012-10/mental-health-service-access-rural-areas. Hopefully as technology evolves and more people have easy access to computers and the internet, there will be greater opportunities for connection and peer support that bridge the rural-urban gap.

5) Question: I’ve struggled with PTSD and bipolar disorder for most of my adult life. I am in a good place now, and I want to help others, but I am not sure that I want to be that public about my conditions. In addition to Peer Support roles, what other kinds of roles are there to help others who struggle with mental conditions?

Answer: So wonderful that you are in a better place now and wish to help others in their own recovery! I certainly understand your concerns around disclosure, and no one should feel pressure to disclose before they are ready to do so. There are many things you can do to help others without disclosing your own history: you could write an anonymous blog about your recovery journey; you could volunteer for a program or service that you support; you can choose to get credentialed as a counselor or therapist; or get certified in providing rehabilitation services such as supportive housing or supported employment.

But I would encourage you to explore your concerns around disclosure more deeply, and take some more time to work through them before you decide to completely rule out peer support roles for yourself. Here is an interesting document to look at while considering the complex issue of disclosure: http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA08-4337/SMA08-4337.pdf. Whatever you decide, best of luck to you!!



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