Employment and/or volunteer activities provide socially-recognized, valued roles that contribute to community integration and enhance and support the recovery process. Federation of Organizations has been employing consumers to deliver mental health services since 1981. By now 20-30% of our consumers fill jobs throughout the agency, many of which are not designated peer positions. Our latest project is a Transition to Community Residence Program (TCR) on the campus of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center for 75 individuals discharged from the Residential Care Center for Adults (RCCA) at Kings Park. There are fourteen full-time Peer Specialists employed at the TCR. The residents have long-term histories of institutional care and complex chronic health conditions in addition to mental illness and most have lived for many years at the RCCA. In the TCR people who have not lived independently for many years will learn the skills and develop the supports needed to move on to community housing. This is an ideal setting for peer workers who can bring their lived experience of recovery to people who may have lost hope and forgotten their dreams.
Some peer positions were filled by graduates of Federation of Organizations’ Personalized Recovery Oriented Services (PROS) Programs in Suffolk County. PROS services are designed to help people overcome barriers related to their mental health condition so they can work, attend school, improve social relationships and achieve their life dreams. The stories and success of the peer specialists are providing living proof to the residents of the TCR, that recovery is possible. Peer specialists at the TCR report that, while it is not always easy, they love their job and attribute their success in working to their participation in the PROS Program. All agreed that the help they received in understanding their strengths, identifying barriers, and developing the confidence and self-esteem needed to do the job was essential in their success.
These employees are eager to share their experience. “PROS helped me put it all together” commented John, who once spent time in jail and at drug rehabs before finding PROS. John attributes his success to being able to relate to the people at TCR because, “I see myself in them and I want to help them to move to better place.” John believes people should have the same opportunities, “and get the chance to live life like I have.” John is in a better place in his recovery from having participated in the PROS program, where he has gone from being a “receiver of services to a provider of services” and for that he is very grateful.
Amy had worked in the past but described her experience as having some “ups and downs.” She believes services offered through PROS better prepared her for employment by helping her identify what was blocking her success and develop her confidence to work. Amy is now considering going back to school.
Dawn received Federation PROS services before her employment at the TCR, acknowledged that PROS staff had more confidence in her than she had in herself. That support encouraged her to recognize and accept her potential. She now sees her own challenging life experiences as preparing her to relate to others and give people hope. She is a very courageous woman who once was “too scared to work” and through the assistance of PROS, now finds comfort in helping others explore their potential.
Denise attributes her success working at TCR to her involvement with Federation of Organizations PROS Program and her experience working as an intern in our Companion Program. The Companion Program is a peer outreach program relying on mutual support. Denise feels her volunteer experience as a Companion prepared her for work and gave her confidence that she would be able to work full-time. Denise commented, “I love my job. I always dreamt about a job like this. I am so proud of myself and I love coming to work every day.”
People who have obtained employment with the help of the PROS Program continue to receive On-going Rehabilitation and Support Services (ORS). ORS services are available for members of PROS who want additional support while working. It gives people an opportunity to meet with their counselor twice a month to discuss any issues they are having, which may possibly compromise their recovery and employment.
Peers employed by Federation emphasize the role that employment plays in their recovery. Some have reported it gives them a reason to keep moving forward and gives their life meaning. For others becoming self-sufficient provides feelings of pride they never felt before. The importance of helping others is a key for many peers in their perception of job satisfaction and recovery. Peers believe that their experience in the mental health system has helped them develop their practice as professionals. Their experience varies. Some people now working have experienced long term psychiatric hospitalizations and resided in state run housing programs. They know what worked for them and what hindered in their recovery. This knowledge shapes their interactions with residents and creates a trusting relationship. Peer workers offer a dynamic presence in staff and treatment team meetings. Peer specialists share experiences with the non-peer staff. This helps all staff understand another perspective and informs their practice. Through their own struggles in the mental health system peer workers truly strive to enrich the lives of the people with whom they work as they enrich their own experience of recovery.