Click here to watch my empowerment talk at WRAP Around the World in Washington, D.C. in 2015. "In and Of the System." It's time for peers to work with the mental health system instead of against it to make real change and bring the power back!
2000-2015: The ServiceNet Years
In 2000 I was looking for a job in Northampton, MA. My roommate Paul said, "You like talking to people, you should work at ServiceNet. I have a friend that works there, she loves being a mental health counselor. She gets paid to take people to the movies. It's awesome."
Well, as you can imagine this was either a totally over-simplified job description, or his friend was really crafty about how she set-up her work day! I decided to check it out. I was hired and started as a part time relief worker in a residential program for people with a dual diagnosis (mental health and substance use.) As someone who had experience with both, I was in my element.
Everything about the work felt great, except the fact that I wasn't supposed to share my own recovery story. I knew enough to appreciate that this was taboo. I held my own story inside like a dark secret for three years before I couldn't do it anymore. One day at staff meeting I shared my diagnosis (bi-polar disorder...I wouldn't address my clutter issues for a couple more years) and said I felt it would be a good thing to share; not for myself, but for the people I was working with and for. The team was ambivalent about the move but I wasn't. With their hesitant blessing I started to share. It wasn't easy at first, but over time I won-over the doubters and transitioned from residential counselor to what I was told was a Peer Specialist, the agency's first. In 2007 I was promoted to management and started a peer specialist program and began hiring people with lived experience. In 2009 I became a member of the mental health division's administrative team. I helped develop policies and procedures that would steer the division towards a more holistic culture which respected, rather than rejected, the sharing of personal stories.
In my 15 years at ServiceNet I experienced the full transition of being an "undercover peer" to helping the agency celebrate what was once a secret. By the time I left in 2015 I had established the Mutual Support Team, which continues to provide peer support and training to hundreds of staff and program participants.
So Paul was right, mental health work was a good fit! And it's true, sometimes I did go out to a movie with folks. But I realized that what made me a good peer specialist wasn't that I liked talking to people, as Paul had thought. It's that I like listening to people.