Saturday, January 5, 2019

Ministry on a Daily Basis: Peer Support

Well. Here it is the fifth day of the new year, and I haven't posted a pastoral blog since November. If you've read my previous blog entries you know that I am a bi-vocational minister. This means that in order to pay my share of the household bills and afford to support this ministry, I need a "day job." I am extremely fortunate, as I have been able to find a day job that allows me to minister to others just about every day. In my position with a behavioral health non-profit in Arizona, I work with adult individuals who are often homeless, struggling with addiction and mental health issues, and related problems ranging from unemployment to suicidal ideation. Currently, my job title is Clinical Services Liaison. My main tasks are to outreach and register individuals for the program I work for. In the course of my duties, I often provide "counseling."

I place that in quotation marks because I am not a licensed therapist, and I do not provide the kind of counseling that a licensed therapist or social worker is trained to provide. I do provide the level of counseling I am trained for as a Chaplain and a Pastoral Care provider. Perhaps it could be considered a little bit of "Life Coaching," or "Spiritual Direction." However, I don't do this in the guise of a priest. In my day job, I am simply utilizing skills I have acquired through my pastoral and chaplaincy training to help clients to discover and articulate their life goals. More importantly, I use my life experiences to work with the clients as a Peer.

When I started with this company, my job was to provide Peer Support as a Crisis Transition Navigator. Navigation and Peer Support are just about the only jobs I can think of where an individual's mistakes in life are a positive point on their résumé. My experiences as a domestic violence victim, a single mother, a person who has temporarily experienced homelessness, a person who has suffered from situational depression, a family member of individuals who have been part of the behavioral health system, as a person who has lived through times of overindulgence in alcohol and other substances myself, and as a relative and spouse of addicts has provided me with the ability to identify with most of the clients who come into our program.

As Peers, the ability to identify with the challenges our clients face gives us a level of empathy that invites the clients to put their trust in us. I cannot count on both hands the number of times a client has told me that they could not open up to a person who never experienced the kind of life they have faced. When a client hears that I, too, have had to escape the horrors of a physically abusive spouse, the client is able to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing not only that they are not alone, but that there is hope for them that their lives will improve, as mine has. It doesn't matter if the client is male, female, or non-binary. What matters is the experience and my ability to compassionately hear their story.

Clients who struggle with addiction are touched when they find that their Peer Support provider is also in recovery. I am not in recovery, but I have experienced what has been called "situational addiction," recreational use of certain substances, and have been in relationship with others who have struggled with opioid, amphetamine, and alcohol addiction. Even so, my clients find me to be an empathetic and caring Peer who understands where the client is "coming from." The most important part of being a Peer Support Specialist is the ability to understand the client's point of view, and to meet them "where they are right now," without any expectation of them meeting specific criteria or demands.

Peer Support Specialists often face a type of discrimination from other healthcare providers. Peer Support Specialists undergo training that provides them the tools to set boundaries between themselves and their clients. They are trained in guidelines for providing professional services while also disclosing a limited amount of personal information while outreaching a client. Nevertheless, there are many who look at a Peer Support provider as simply being "another addict." Rising above the negative perceptions of one's mistakes in life is difficult. When an individual identifies themselves as a Peer, there are some professionals who don't recognized the value of lived experience.

Here in Arizona, we are working on that. More and more, the value of a Peer Support Provider is recognized. As time goes by and statistics are collected, in becomes clear that a client with a Peer Support Provider or Navigator is more likely to be able to follow up on the requirements of treatment and the legal system. With a good, caring, and strong Peer Navigator, a client who is motivated to improve thier life is more likely to achieve success. I don't have the actual statistics, but Peer Support is an evidence based practice that is proven to help individuals make positive changes in their lives.

There are all kinds of Peer Support Specialists. Some work with individuals, other work with families. Some work in the medical field. Others, like me, work in behavioral health. As the benefits of Peer Support become better understood, the possibilities are endless.

I wanted to share this with you, because  I know that Peer Support is a positive and compassionate profession that allows people who have faced hard times to use that experience to help others come through their difficult situations. I want to reach out to those who are searching for a meaningful career who have "been there." If you are one of us, consider Peer Support as a possible new career track. Of course, in full disclosure, this isn't an area where you'll get rich, so if wealth is your goal, this isn't for you. However, if your goal in life is to be able to help others, to use your experiences in life creatively, and to give hope to the hopeless, Peer Support might just be for you.

Think about it - and may your have a happy and joyous 2019!

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