Patients on 2 South, Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital’s inpatient psychiatry unit, are treated by a multidisciplinary care team that includes doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists and mental health workers. They also benefit from peer supporters in the Peer Support Program who model recovery and give patients a sense of hope that they too can get better.
Through peer support groups and one-on-one sessions with peer supports, or even just sitting and watching television or playing ping pong together, patients bond with others in similar situations and learn that there is life after a mental health diagnosis. At BWFH, a Peer Support Volunteer and a Certified Peer Specialist—a paid position funded by a generous gift from an anonymous donor—provide access to peer support for patients four days per week. Both have a history of mental health disorders, have been through treatment and are now in recovery. Along the way, they have learned how to cope with their own remaining challenges and have strong support systems in place. They have both trained in the role of peer supporter and speak openly and honestly with patients about their own struggles as well as successes.
“Peers can connect with patients in a way that providers can’t,” explains Director of Inpatient Psychology and Training Christopher AhnAllen, PhD. “They can help patients connect with their visions and goals in ways that are unique and really relevant to recovery.”
Dr. AhnAllen has seen the benefit peer support can have with his patients. “By encouraging patients to attend groups or making other recommendations, the peers become an intermediary who can reach out to patients and connect them back into their care, which is really helpful,” he says. “We have patients who are on the periphery and unable to connect. They can benefit from someone just sitting with them.”
For the peer supporters themselves, the job is not an easy one. Certified Peer Specialist Martha Barbone says, “It’s a really tough job. Often you are supporting people in their darkest time and they are very hopeless. It brings up a lot of personal stuff. I can be talking with someone and it brings me right back to feeling that way. I remember vividly when I felt that way so you do have to be pretty solid in your own recovery to cope with that.”
Despite its challenges, being a peer supporter is ultimately incredibly rewarding. The peers on 2 South have supported many patients through their recovery, including a patient who started out disengaged in his care but later went on to become a Certified Peer Specialist himself.
Barbone sums things up by saying, “My story has meaning and value. Doing this work is the opportunity to use not only my dark times, but also my good times in a way that might be helpful to someone else. I want people to understand that there are people out there who have a diagnosis and they are still living full lives.”
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