NYAPRS Note: The following piece emphasizes the great value of peer bridgers, an approach NYAPRS first pioneered in 1995 here in New York. For more details about the program and training/TA opportunities, please contact Tanya Stevens at email@example.com.
Program Moves Patients With Help From Peers
Wilmington News Journal
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) – When she looks back now on the past three decades of her life, Anne Riccio-Sauers sees year after year and episode after episode of what she calls “circling the drain.”
It started when she was just 14. She was a straight-A student at the time when all of a sudden, for no reason she can recall, she started to cry – constantly. She lost her will to live and she made her first trip into a hospital for psychiatric treatment. She was there for a couple of weeks.
There would be many more such trips as Riccio-Sauers, now 42, wrestled with a paralyzing mental illness. She took overdoses of medication, hoping it would end her anguish. She withdrew. She wept. She literally banged her head against the wall. Somehow, she survived.
She knows what it’s like to wake up in a psychiatric unit at Wilmington Hospital, MeadowWood Hospital, Rockford Center and the Delaware Psychiatric Center. She knows what it’s like to be tied down, to be pumped full of medicine, and the sense of futility and hopelessness that grows as the downward spiral continues.
She also knows the impact one person can make.
One of those people for her was Flo Alberque, coordinator of the bridge peer program at the Delaware Psychiatric Center. As the title suggests, bridge peers are equals in the struggle against mental illness. Many have been in psychiatric institutions and have returned to life in the community.
The program, which has been in place less than two years, is a critical piece of Delaware’s efforts to revamp the way it serves people with mental illness, especially in its goal to help them leave institutional settings and move back into the community.
The plan was largely defined by Penny Chelucci in the office of consumer affairs and peer consultant Gayle Bluebird, who has been part of the consumer recovery and peer movement for decades and has written curriculum to help others establish similar partnerships.
“What happens is I have the nurses, the mental-health techs, my social worker, my psychiatrist, but when I’m discharged, all those people disappear,” Alberque said. “I have a new case manager, a new provider, a new psychiatrist. The one person who is consistent from the hospital to the community is the bridge peer.”
Alberque, 51, of Newark, said the bridge program started with two part-time peers. Now there are six, plus Alberque. She hopes someday peers will be everywhere in Delaware’s mental-health system.
At the end of March, bridge peer specialists were working with 22 peers – nine of whom were at DPC, 13 in the community.
“One thing peers do that is different than anyone else we disclose our stories,” Alberque said. “It helps you to build interesting relationships. The client might say, ‘This is what I’m going through.’ And you can say, ‘I can totally relate to it. This is what happened to me and this is how I got through.’ “
Lots of people — including her peers and sometimes the hospital staff can’t believe Alberque has a mental illness. Alberque has bipolar disorder and nearly died after trying to take her own life before she got help.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Not you! You’re not a mental-health consumer, are you?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I am,’ ” she said. “For me personally, I’ve come a long way in my own recovery by doing this work…I have some rough days. I guess everybody does. But you keep on plugging. The work is so important.”
Danielle Denney says it has become a passion for her.
“I used to never let anyone know of my own challenges,” she said. “I was afraid. Now I share that with people more because I feel that I have overcome something.”
Now when she hears someone say something snide about those with mental illness, she speaks up.
“I’ll say, ‘What’s interesting is that I, too, have a mental illness,’ ” Denney said. “People typically don’t believe me. But part of my recovery needs to be being OK with who I am.”
That kind of openness has helped to build the credibility, impact and reach of the program. More calls are coming to the peer specialists as the effectiveness of their work becomes more evident.
“I’ve seen a wonderful transformation in staff, from curiosity and suspicion to acceptance and respect,” Alberque said.
She has seen the proverbial “light bulb” come on when she has such discussions with clients, too.
“They say, ‘You take medication?’ And they realize we’re the same.”
Peer specialists attend some DPC staff meetings, and Denney said a psychiatrist stopped her in the hall after one of the meetings.
“He said, ‘Thanks for your input in the meeting today. We didn’t think of it that way before,’ ” she said.
Denney said part of the work is to help clients find their voices again, too.
“We ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ And some of them have never been asked that before,” she said.
Apryl Neuhauser, 31, of Bear, whose struggle with methamphetamines nearly took her out, said peer specialists have to be careful not to accept stock answers. Many clients respond to questions with the answers they think they’re supposed to give.
“They’re told this, this, this and this and they believe that, that, that and that,” she said.
She often takes people into community settings or meets with those who have been discharged. Some of those encounters remind her of how far the crossing is for some. She has heard clients refer to places that no longer exist places like Castle Mall, which was torn down years ago and have seen their amazement when they see what a smartphone can do or encounter other technological advances that had passed them by.
Some of these clients may take the torch themselves and — after getting their footing in the community get the training necessary to be a peer specialist.
Riccio-Sauers has followed Alberque’s lead. She has been out of the hospital for just over a year. She shares a Holly Oak house with six other people and works part time as a peer specialist for Horizon House, her own service provider. She meets with clients, helps them apply for Medicaid or Social Security or get a government ID card and does whatever she can to help them feel comfortable.
And she lets them know that life will sometimes be good, sometimes be tough. The transition takes time.
“Moving somewhere else was a fresh start for me,” she said. “Initially, I was really nervous about it. Now that I’ve been doing it over a year, I’m more comfortable with it.”
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com