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The Power of Peers – TPC Expands Mental Health Peer Support

Posted: Wed, August 01, 2018

For those receiving treatment for mental illness, sometimes it’s best to hear about the process of getting better from someone who has been there before. Peer specialists are people that who use their own experience with mental health and addiction to help others.

In the addiction field, peers, sometimes called sponsors, have long been a part of the treatment landscape. Now, mental health treatment providers are increasingly relying on peers to build a connection with patients. The model is a win-win: those suffering often have an easier time connecting with someone who has been in their shoes, and peers have a job in which their past struggles become a significant asset. In the past year, The Providence Center (TPC) has expanded its use of peer services for mental health, adding a team of five state-certified certified peer specialists, with two more scheduled to be brought on board.

Gina Pollock and Tom Zwolenski are TPC peer specialists who have worked to get the program off the ground. Pollock suffers from depression, which had prevented her from working at her job as a teacher for two years.  She says her experience is a huge advantage when it comes to breaking down the barriers that often exist between client and provider.

“Instead of just talking about things from a clinical point of view, we’re able to disclose our past experiences and build trust,” said Pollock. “Often, clients open up to us more than they ever had with their treatment teams.”

Becoming a peer specialist can also be a way to establish a resume in social services. Zwolenski was recently promoted to case manager, the first time a peer specialist has moved up the ranks.

“Getting this peer position helped keep me on track in my recovery, and it has developed into a career,” said Zwolenski. “I never thought it would turn into something so rewarding.” Zwolenski developed an addiction to opiates after being prescribed them following a car accident, and notes that this sort of program likely would’ve helped him when he was struggling.

Becoming a mental health peer specialist requires a certification that includes 500 hours of training and successful completion of an exam. Pollock and Zwolenski both heard about the opportunity while receiving peer-to-peer services at Anchor in Pawtucket.

In the past, TPC had attempted to establish a program using peers but was not able to achieve meaningful integration with clinical programs. Jaissen Jackson, a clinical manager and coordinator of peer services at TPC, was tasked with building the mental health peers program from scratch.

“To make this a cohesive model, I wanted the program to run like a Health Home team, with a team approach in which staff can bounce ideas off their co-workers and learn from each other,” said Jackson. “Tom and Gina deserve most of the credit for getting this program off the ground.”

Peer specialists like Pollock run well-attended discussion groups with clients: Monday is a wellness check-in, and Wednesday is adult coloring. Each specialist also has a caseload of clients with whom they hold one-on-one meetings, and TPC clinicians from across the organization can now refer their clients to a peer specialist.

The program provides the opportunity for current TPC clients who are successful in their recovery to shadow peer specialists to see if it’s something they would be interested in pursuing. Jackson is also leading an effort to have a peer specialist take new clients through the intake process and keep them engaged during a time when they often fall through the cracks and don’t participate in follow-up treatment.

Pollock enjoys coming to work every day.  “I have clients who I have seen make great strides in recovery, and experiencing that progress is an amazing thing,” said Pollock. “Now I feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives, and I’m continuing to learn from them myself.”

To apply for a position as a peer specialist, please go to Care New England’s Careers Page.

Pictured: Gina Pollock and Tom Zwolenski