Shared Pain, Shared Healing
Peer-to-Peer support is transforming mental health care
By Elyse Notarianni

There are certain events in life so universally experienced that they often become normalized: divorce, the death of parents, major accidents. The mindset is: It’s terrible and it’s sad, but it happens.    

People show compassion, but eventually they move on. And that can leave a person suffering alone through their own shattered existence. For them, moving on isn’t possible. And they unravel in a painful and desperate way.

It’s an experience you don’t, and can’t, understand until the moment you really understand it, says Lauren Pelley, peer manager for H.E.A.R.T. at Oaks Integrated Care. She understands that better than most. Having gone through her own challenges, Pelley now helps others get through theirs. 

“When I went through a divorce from my husband of 15 years, it uprooted everything I thought I was,” she says. “I was married one minute, and the next, I was completely on my own – a single mom of 2 kids.”

Pelley was 19 when she got married, and life with her husband was really all she had ever known. The divorce launched her into an identity crisis. 

“I had a lot of suicidal ideation,” she says. “I went through a severe dissociation. I wasn’t eating. My depression got to a point where it rendered me into a psychotic episode, which landed me in the crisis unit of the hospital, then an intensive outpatient program.”

Through that treatment, Pelley got on medication to stabilize her emotions and started yoga, meditation and therapy. But what truly got her through, she says, was peer-to-peer counseling.

“My value isn’t in my illness or perceived shortcomings, but because I have gone where many haven’t, and I’ve brought a light back.”

Peer support is a proven mental health model of care in which a peer support specialist – someone who has a lived recovery experience with mental illness and/or substance abuse – works alongside therapists, psychiatrists and case managers.

“My peer counselor was the first person who made me feel truly seen,” Pelley says. “At that time, I didn’t even feel like a person, and she made me feel like a person. In that space, I was able to grow because I didn’t feel broken.” 

“It led me to think, ok, I can get out of it. I can survive. And when I do, I’m going to do what they do,” she adds. “The spark of inspiration to serve had begun in a time of darkness that I had never known, and that I didn’t want anyone to know about either.” 

Pelley now leads a team of peer specialists at Oaks’ Crisis Screening program in Cherry Hill. 

41 states have developed certifications for peer support using a wide range of standards and requirements. New Jersey offers two pathways: Recovery Support Practitioner certification for mental health peers and Peer Recovery Specialist certification for peers who have experienced substance use disorder. 

Peer counseling has been proven to improve patient outcomes, including reducing the need for inpatient and emergency services, and the frequency of recurrent psychiatric hospitalizations, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

For Javita Coleman, another peer-to-peer counselor at Oaks’ Crisis Screening Center, her own recovery process would have looked very different if she had access to the same service, she says.

“No matter how many people support you, there are things you just can’t say to someone who doesn’t understand, and it’s isolating,” says Coleman. “No one knew what was going on in my head.”

Coleman says she has struggled with her mental health since she was 10 years old. She’s survived multiple suicide attempts – the first at just 16 years old, the last soon after she finalized her divorce. At her lowest, she wanted to give up her kids.

“I felt like the entire world was on my shoulders, and I didn’t think the life I was living – and the life I was giving them – was good enough,” she says. “It felt like too much to bear, having to handle it all on my own while feeling like I had failed at every step.” 

Coleman, whose father was a pastor, turned to her faith to pull her out. Then she devoted herself to working with people who couldn’t help themselves.

“There are so many people who are willing to be there for you and help, but if that person hasn’t walked the walk, they’ll never truly understand,” she says. “Having someone who says, ‘I know what you’ve been going through because I’ve been there too and I’m here to support you’ makes you feel like you can get through it, because you’re looking at someone who has.”

Everyone’s story is different, and healing doesn’t always look like medications and doctors’ offices, says Pelley. 

“I’ve done peer support meetings while bowling or walking the aisles of Walmart,” she says. “I taught one woman how to crochet, and she made a blanket for her granddaughter. She wasn’t the ‘grandmom who had a mental illness who needed to be looked after.’ She was the matriarch who could offer protection and warmth.”

While peer specialists have gone through a similar journey, it’s crucial to remember that they themselves are in recovery as well. 

“Sometimes triggers will come up reminding you of your own struggles,” says Pelley. “Compassion fatigue is real. It helps to remind yourself that you don’t have to have all the answers. Your peer knows that you’re in recovery as well.”

The beauty of this job, she says, is that she was not hired “in spite of” her mental and physical illnesses. 

“Oaks hired me because they see I have a distinct form of knowledge as someone who has been in the shoes of those I serve,” says Pelley. “My value isn’t in my illness or perceived shortcomings, but because I have gone where many haven’t, and I’ve brought a light back.”

“At the time, it felt like the worst experience of my life,” she adds. “But looking back, it was a spiritual experience because it changed my life so much.” 

June 2024
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