2022 California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CBHA) Conference

Northern Westchester Recovery Network in Action

The Mental Health Association of Westchester County, Inc. has established an exciting cutting-edge service known as the Northern Westchester Recovery Network (NWRN) with initial focus on the communities of Peekskill, Ossining, and Mohegan Lake, New York. NWRN is funded by the Office of Mental Health as a Recovery Center. This model was designed by and for people who have lived experience of mental health conditions and recovery with the leadership, vision and inspiration provided by John Allen, Director for the Bureau of Recipient Affairs of the New York State Office of Mental Health.

Community based mental health services were created after people who had endured unnecessary extended stays in State Hospitals were discharged into the community in the 1960s. Westchester County became rich in outpatient, as well as inpatient community hospital services, to achieve the goals of helping people avoid lengthy hospitalizations, decrease occurrence of psychiatric symptoms, and increase individuals’ community tenure. Recovery was viewed as linear, that is to say, individuals were expected to demonstrate compliance with a higher, or more restrictive level of care, in order to progress to a “step-down” or less restrictive level of service. The prevailing belief was that if individuals experienced symptoms, it was unlikely that they were ready for work, school, or independent living. While the community-based service system may be credited with helping people decrease inpatient hospital stays, it also fostered social exclusion and dependence on the mental health system. As a result, many people were segregated into mental health settings and denied opportunities to create meaningful lives within the community.

Today, our prevailing goal is not increased community tenure, but of assisting people as they create relationships and meaningful lives in their own community – in short, a commitment to authentic recovery. The Recovery Center model derives from the accumulated wisdom gathered from decades of efforts to establish true partnerships between service providers and service participants. The establishment of a peer-run Recovery Center in Northern Westchester County provides the truest opportunity yet to avoid fostering unnecessary dependency on professionalized services for people in recovery from mental health conditions, while encouraging them to live rich, self-determined lives in their natural communities.

The Recovery Center model started as part of New York State’s Office of Mental Health’s intention to move mental health services toward a greater recovery focus Recovery Centers are run by people who have both professional training and their own lived experiences of recovery. The services provided expand on those traditionally provided by peers to include a strong focus on making connections with natural supports, including academic, recreational, and spiritual communities, as well as accessing needed healthcare, housing, education, employment, mutual support, wellness, self-help, and advocacy. The goal of Recovery Centers is to foster robust recovery, full community integration, and a life beyond services.

You may know or work with people who are stuck in services or have been on benefits for years, who seem to have lost hope or do not have a plan going forward in their recoveries. The Northern Westchester Recovery Network brings hope, sparks interests, and supports people as they take steps to move on to robust recovery and complete lives in the community. Recovery Specialists and Assistant Recovery Specialists engage individuals around the four key components of recovery: 1) Connection and Peer Support; 2) Social and Recreational Activities in the Community; 3) Economic Literacy and Self-Sufficiency; and 4) Health and Wellness.

The Recovery Center is not a physical facility; rather, we meet people where they are through outreach and engagement, supporting each individual on his or her personal journey to recovery. We strive to create an environment of trust and mutual respect, encouraging people to take risks and try new activities, bolstering self-confidence and self-esteem. Whether individuals have become dependent and stalled through prolonged “programming,” or have not yet had adequate opportunities, we will engage them and help them to either find or rediscover their passion in life. Perhaps they want a new place to live, a job, better relationships with friends and family, or to take up a new hobby. Our goal is to partner with them and help make this happen.

Peer staff work with individuals to be sure they are aware of and accessing the entitlements and benefits for which they are eligible. Since work and meaningful activity are such a critical aspect of recovery, staff help people find jobs. Initially, some of the positions may be part-time, enabling individuals to regain their benefits. As self-confidence grows, full-time employment, and independence from entitlements may follow. Naturally, incentives such as Medicaid Buy-In for Working People with Disabilities, PASS Plans, and others are encouraged. Recovery Specialists also encourage people to develop plans for budgeting, saving, building personal assets, increasing income, and creating economic self-sufficiency.

One participant in NWRN learned how to travel by bus in her community by working with an Assistant Recovery Specialist. NWRN staff also helped her apply for a half-fare card. She reports that her newfound independence makes it possible for her to use her mental health program as she chooses rather than being limited by her program’s transportation schedule. She has more confidence and independence than ever, improving her quality of life.

Health and Wellness are addressed for participants by making connections to Health Homes when needed, but also by focusing on self-help services in the community. For example, Recovery Specialists may accompany people to 12-Step groups, yoga, exercise, nutrition and cooking classes or help create and connect people to community based, trauma informed self-help alternatives, such as Dr. Mary Ellen Copeland’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) Groups.

One NWRN Recovery Specialist who had lived experience of both homelessness and recovery from a mental health condition worked with a participant living in a shelter and feeling very hopeless and depressed about his future. As a peer, empathic and experienced, the Recovery Specialist was able to quickly gain this young man’s trust, inspire hope, and help him take steps toward his goal of working as a culinary chef. This participant is now enrolled in Job Corps, which is providing him with housing, education, and training in the culinary arts. He is working towards his dream of becoming a culinary chef. In the process of making this step forward, his mental health condition is also much improved and he has gained hope for his future.

Another compelling aspect of NWRN is our data collection and service evaluation. We complete outcome surveys with all participants when they join the Network and every 4 to 6 months thereafter. We intend to demonstrate that our peer services are effective and that the people we serve truly move forward with their goals for mental health recovery and full lives in their communities.

We are all peers and hope to inspire others with mental health conditions to build rich lives in their communities. Our motto is, If we can do it, you can do it too.

For more information or to make a referral for services, please contact NWRN’s Coordinator, Linda Carroll at CarrollL@mhawestchester.org. or (914) 345-5900 ext. 7594.

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