Paths to Passageway
Paths to Passageway
Article by: Julia C.
"The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice." -Brain Herbert
Last Spring I was in my quarterly review when Nicole Davis, the Assistant Director of Eyerly Ball, suggested to me that I take a training course to become a Peer Specialist. I didn’t know what a Peer Specialist was, but I was intrigued. I looked it up and found that the University of Iowa’s Department of Health and Family Services was offering a week-long training course for Peer Support Specialist funded by the Department of Human Services.
I looked up this training and found out that Peer Specialists were a specific type of counselor, one who was themselves a person with a mental illness who is trained to work with other people with a mental illness to assist them in their recovery. In this, they differ from most “regular” counselors who are trained in the symptoms and nuances of the disease itself rather than its recover. The course manual says that “recovery is the process of gaining control over one’s life after a mental illness diagnosis.” There are five stages each person goes through to get to recovery, according to the manual:
Often, this recovery can be a long haul, sometimes covering years. I found out there was an application for the training, so I practiced by answering the application questions used by the clubhouse in their employment process. It was proper training because both were about 20 pages long! They asked questions like, “What are your strengths?” “How would you describe your recovery,” and so on. It required a lot of thought and practice.
I learned that the training was in Council Bluffs and I was ready to take it! When the people sponsoring the event told me that they were holding one closer to Des Moines in September, I said I would prefer the latter as I would not have to stay in a hotel, and transportation would be more feasible. They said they would contact me in August. In August, I reached out to them right away. They had accepted my application, spoke to my references, and gave me a reasonably straightforward interview over the phone. They told me the training was a Prairie Meadows and I was set to go! I budgeted for my meals and Eyerly Ball said they would provide transportation. They had made reasonable accommodations for my legal blindness by enlarging the manual that was to be used after consulting with me about the size of the font to be used. One thing was left to do before I went to the training and that was an on-site visit by myself and the director of my house who was providing the transportation.
We went to Prairie Meadows and wound up at the hotel only to discover the training was in the casino building next door. We went there and found the large room where it was to be held, all set up with covered tables. We traversed the elevators and escalators and found the restroom, so I knew just where everything was. Although I wasn’t sure how it would work to have our training in a casino, it was quiet and serene during the day. It didn’t become lively until Friday night just as we left.
Monday the 11th arrived, and I found the Prairie Rose Room without difficulty. There were four presenters for this training: Diane, David, Sara, and Brenda. They were all engaging and very knowledgeable. There were about 20 participants, most of whom were already working as peer specialists, sent by their employers. They were lively, personable, and seemed to enjoy talking to one another. I watched it all with great interest. I spoke a little to the woman next to me, Susan, who wasn’t a Peer Specialist yet either.
The training was held September 11-15 from 8:30 am-5:00 pm. We had an hour lunch break each day, and I went with the presenters or other trainees to the 2nd floor where there was a snack bar that served delicious food at a reasonable price. I had hash browns and sausage omelets most days. You had to go through the slot machines to get to the snack bar, and some concessions sold fudge and ice cream along the way. Some trainees brought their lunches and sat outside on a bench to eat. I found it a long walk from the snack bar to the Prairie Rose Room on the fourth floor.
During the sessions, there were about thirty topics that were discussed. We had two courses that covered the purpose of a Peer Specialist and how they fit into the framework of Iowa’s mental health system. We were given a book of over 200 pages, a folder detailing the mental health services in Iowa, a key ring with study cards to help prepare us for an exam to be given two weeks after the class ended. We were also given a box of goodies that included index cards, a bottle of bubbles, silly putty, and a stress ball – just for fun! (And to safely relieve stress.)
We studied the WRAP plan on Thursday which was a bit of a review for me since I’ve studied it before. But the rest was new and incredibly interesting. We learned about what kinds of questions elicited what types of responses and how to respond to different variations of statements. We practiced these in pairs and groups of three. We learned how to problem solve and had a homework assignment in which we had to look up community resources for a variety of situations from housing to emergency mental health hotlines. Fortunately, I had asked about writing assignments in advance, so I came prepared with booklets that had this kind of information in them. I wrote an article dealing with these community resources for this newsletter a few months ago. We learned about how to help people with negative self-talk, writing health goals, relaxation and stress responses, how to make choices, identifying support systems, the difference between empathy and sympathy igniting the spark of hope and learning when to use our own recovery story to help people grow and change.
We learned a lot, and for me, the training was a life-changing event. We learned about Trauma Informed Care, which helped me become more sensitive to the all too prevalent role of trauma, both physical and psychological, that pervade our lives. I found this last to be the most helpful as I have a roommate that went through a traumatic situation and I was able, in some small way to help her through it by listening and being supportive of her through this process. It has made me want to study more about these topics, and I have started by involving myself in classes taught by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. NAMI is an organization for adults living with mental illness and gives them a platform to advocate for themselves and educate the general public about mental illness.
I hope I will have the opportunity to help a lot more people in the future.