Mentors and Tour Guides: Peer support and understanding on the road to recovery

Mentors and Tour Guides: Peer support and understanding on the road to recovery

Loneliness, or the sense of being alone even when you are surrounded by people, is the hallmark of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. More than a feeling, loneliness is a state of mind that can have debilitating consequences for those who experience depression and anxiety. Well-intended friends and family members often struggle with how to support a loved one who lives with mental health and addiction, a condition experienced by one out of four people worldwide, like me.

Because of my own struggles, I’m inspired to help others, and this spring, the Ohio Workforce Development in Behavioral Health’s Peer Recovery Support program brought me together with two dozen other people from  an array of backgrounds in education, gender, race, religion and incarceration history that truly mirrored the diversity of American society; yet, we were all united by our common experiences with addictions and mental health conditions.

Thanks to this training, I feel a stronger understanding of mental health and addiction as an “equal opportunity” problem with no regard for artificial social boundaries as exhibited in the story of one middle-aged man and fellow participant who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. He recounted his experience being pummeled with the fists of a woman’s jealous boyfriend. Following the incident, the three shared joints and vodka in an elegant student suite at an Ivy League university.

The peer supporters role-playing exercises focused on how the role differs from other mental health roles, such as case workers or counselors, in terms of truly being on the same level as the fellow sufferer. A list of roles for peer specialists to fill include mentor, “tour guide” (i.e., showing people the ropes of daily living when they have had a hard time learning that in the past), resource broker and simply, friend.

We discussed how the diversity of identities and backgrounds play into how we see each other and how that might affect treatment. One of the most visually vivid examples was when we were challenged to write our autobiographies in drawings, without words. We drew stick figures of ourselves going to second grade, serving in the military, having babies and so on.

In another challenge, a man made his way across a crowded room blindfolded with another man’s instructions a little to the left; two steps forward stop one step left then forward as his only guide. It helped show me how much support we all receive from others in life.

The most valuable part of this training was the strong bonding experience it provided with other classmates and our instructors.

From the first meeting in Akron between co-founders Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous has taught the world that fellow sufferers of addiction are the best teachers and mentors of those struggling to come to grips with their conditions. And groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have long coordinated peer-to-peer connections on the basis of an “each one teach one” philosophy.

Now, in the grips of 21st Century challenges, including the opioid crisis, public authorities are beginning to see the peer-supporter role as one worthy of training.

Our training sessions met at the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County for 40 hours, which included group discussions, role-play exercises and studying from a manual. At the end of this experience, we received certification as Peer Recovery Supporters through the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services (MHAS).

After completing 16 hours of online coursework and having our references checked as persons with a lived experience of a mental health and/or addiction challenge, we were accepted into this invaluable training without charge. I now feel ready to take on the role of Peer Supporter. And I feel ready to use the network of people I met in the training as a basis for a job search to build on my current role as a recreational therapy assistant into a role with expanded responsibilities, like case management. I feel prepared to approach fellow sufferers as individuals and fellow travelers on the journey of recovery.

Several states preceded Ohio in offering a certification process for peer specialist, peer supporter or similar title. The Ohio Department of Mental Health has had the credential in place since 2016, and the organization Mental Health America now offers a national credential that may lead to reciprocity or centralization amongst the state processes.

With the possibility that positions calling for this certification will become eligible for Medicaid coverage, the occupational outlook appears bright. The importance of peer support in recovery has been clear for many years.

Those interested in an upcoming Peer Support Training session may contact Ohio’s MHAS.

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