Peer Specialists Model Recovery for Those Struggling With Mental Illness

March 9, 2024

It was while attending an open Narcotics Anonymous meeting with a family member that Lisa Charland saw first-hand the powerful role peers could play in a person’s recovery.

Her family member was a featured speaker, and afterward, people shared with him that he was the reason they were in recovery.

“I was so moved by that,” said Charland, who went on to become a peer specialist at McLean. “I felt the peer specialist job would allow me to do something similar.”

Today, Charland is one of the many peer specialists working at the hospital.

She and her colleagues have struggled with mental health conditions, but now, as they continue to work on their recovery, they can use that experience to help others.

They lead groups, work one-on-one with patients, and are living examples of how people can build rich, fulfilling lives despite mental health challenges.

Peers must complete coursework and pass a certification exam in order to work in the field.

Group of people sitting and smiling at a table outside

“Peers occupy a different space in the treatment relationship,” explained Dost Öngür, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Psychotic Disorders, where nine of the hospital’s peer specialists work.

“Clinicians come in with expertise and recommendations about what will work best for someone with a psychotic disorder, but they often lack a deep appreciation of the actual experience of psychosis.

Peer specialists who have lived experience better understand things like what kind of communication works best and how to create motivation in a person who is struggling.”

McLean’s peer specialist program has been hugely successful, and Öngür would like to see it grow. That’s where a generous gift from Kitty and Ed Smith comes in.

The donation will enable McLean to expand the scope of the program and put it on firmer financial footing.

Because peer services are not eligible for insurance reimbursement, McLean has largely depended on philanthropy to keep the program alive.

“The Smiths’ gift is opening up new vistas for us and will ensure the success of peers at McLean in perpetuity,” said Öngür.

The Smiths said their gift was inspired by the memory of their son Andrew, who died in 2011 after struggling with schizophrenia.

They were impressed with how the peer specialist program has thrived at WellSpace, a drop-in center offering more than a dozen groups each week for young adult patients who have experienced their first psychotic episode and are early in treatment. (The Smiths’ philanthropy helped launch WellSpace in 2016.)

“We were pleased with how the peer specialists have taken off and how the program has broadened throughout McLean,” said Kitty.

“It signals the success McLean has had in this area, so we want to strengthen the initiative as much as we can.”

Peer specialist Steve Fedele, who also serves as program coordinator of WellSpace, facilitates or co-facilitates half a dozen groups per week, including a meditation group and others focusing on hearing voices, wellness, and writing.

One of Fedele’s goals is to create a safe space where participants can talk about anything.

“With peer specialists, there’s no clinical reporting or medical intervention,” said Fedele, who has lived with psychosis for 18 years and written and lectured extensively about his recovery.

“Another part of it is giving people the space to talk about things with someone who has been through it. I’ve dealt with voices and visions myself and have different ways and modalities of addressing these symptoms. The goal is to have more autonomy in your life and not let the voices get in your way.”

Yale Hicks, a peer specialist who works as program coordinator at Waverley Place, McLean’s community-based support program, encourages people he works with to think expansively about what they can accomplish.

“I’ve achieved a lot, and I believe others can too,” said Hicks, who has been a peer specialist at Waverley Place for 17 years.

“I believe people can make their dreams a reality, and maybe there’s something even bigger in store for them that they haven’t dreamed of. Instead of thinking they can’t do it, I want them to think big. They can do it.”

Hicks also believes that mental illness presents the opportunity for growth and looks back at his own evolution (he was diagnosed at age 21) with gratitude.

“The message is usually ‘what’s wrong with you, let’s fix you,’ not ‘what can you learn from this?’” said Hicks.

“That’s where I use my lived experience, asking ‘how can we evolve, progress spiritually, go forward, learn?’ Let’s look at all this as a wonderful opportunity, even if it’s very, very hard.”

Patients are not the only ones who benefit from the peer specialist program. The work has been critical to his own recovery, according to Fedele.

“There is a lot of mutual learning in peer work,” he said. “There’s research showing that peer specialists have a bolstered recovery thanks to the work we do.”

Charland can attest to the healing powers of meaningful work.

“I love supporting others in their recovery and boosting their hopefulness, as there have been many times when I felt hopeless too,” she said.

“The people we serve are really wonderful—creative, well-read, and intelligent. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to do this impactful work.”

Interested in supporting peer specialists at McLean? Contact Keith Raho.

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