Lead Editor: Nathaniel Hall, Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Team Peer Support Specialist

Bill Newcomb is the peer specialist for Integral Care’s Judge Guy Herman Center for Mental Health Crisis Care. Nathaniel Hall interviewed him.

Nathaniel: Part of a peer specialist’s job is mentoring. What does that include?

Bill: Mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person.
Sometimes peer specialists can look like teachers or coaches or sponsors depending on what we’re doing. Peer specialists are experts in recovery and resilience. We’ve managed to get our life back on track after suffering a major disruption. Sharing our recovery story and what we’ve learned along the way is a major qualification for our job.

Nathaniel: Where do peer specialists get their expertise?

Bill: Life. My expertise comes from having lived with mental illness and all the associated challenges it presents. Peer specialists have all had major life disruptions due to mental illness and have survived and overcome. We use ourselves as examples, proof that people can, and do recover.
Recovery to me isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. One of my favorite quotes relating to peer support is “The first to help you up are the ones who know how it feels to fall down.”

Nathaniel: What does a peer specialist focus more on – recovery and wellness or illness and disease?

Bill: Recovery and wellness without a doubt. One of the most important jobs a peer specialist has is to tell our recovery story. This is very different from a “war story” in that the focus is on how we got through the tough times. How we survived. What helped us get better and what didn’t. This doesn’t mean we shy away from talking about the bad stuff, the illness and its impact. It’s the difference between just remembering the hard times and learning from the past.

One thing I’ve seen over the years is that people who struggle with mental illness often have a hard time having hope. Spending too much time focusing on problems can make them seem worse and lead people to a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness. Focusing on positive actions people can take gives them more of a sense of control and empowers them. Having ways of “fighting back” help people to not feel like helpless victims.

One of the things I do a lot of groups on is coping skills. The number one way to take a break for me is “pet a furry creature.”

Nathaniel: What does “peer advocacy” mean?

Bill: It’s frequently the case that people dealing with mental health challenges are told what their recovery should look like by family, friends or medical professionals. Peer specialists can help people define what they want their recovery to look like and help them to advocate for treatment that supports their goals.
Recovery means different things to different people. I define my own recovery as being able to live a happy and productive life, but I can’t impose my definition on anyone else. For some people, it might just mean staying out of psychiatric hospitals. That was my main goal when I was newly diagnosed. Promoting self-determination is literally the first principle in the certified peer specialist code of ethics.
Another way peer specialists help advocate for our clients is navigating the mental health system itself. Sometimes this can mean translating the language used by specialists, for example “doctor speak.” Sometimes it can mean aiding someone in finding help or resources.

The Herman Center offers adults emergency mental health care in a safe overnight facility. Staff help adults who are in crisis by providing medical support, emotional support, medicine and connection to ongoing services. The Herman Center does not accept walk-ins. Referrals come from law enforcement and healthcare providers, like local emergency departments.