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“Peerness” is Important

Merlyn Karst

My title for this blog came to me when recalling a presentation by Tom Hill several years ago at an Association of Recovery Community Organizations (ARCO) conference. Tom served for four years as Director of Programs at Faces & Voices of Recovery. It was my early introduction to the vital and emerging role of peers in the future of mental health and peer recovery support and services. His personal experience of recovery from addiction spans two decades. As he spoke of the development of structural frameworks of Peer Support Services, he emphasized the recognition of the foundational value of “lived experience.” Evidence of the reality of recovery comes through stories from those who have found long-term recovery and hold the power of their story to help others. Within the stories lies the essence of “peerness.”” Tom emphasized, always keep the “peerness” in the programs and the process. Among many positives, it reduces the barrier that the “others” present with the statement. “I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand”. Beyond that barrier comes acceptance and understanding, leading to a peer based relationship. The relationships are evident in other peer-based organizations. I was associated with Peer Assistance Services in Colorado. Founded in 1984, Peer Assistance Services programs today provide services for a wide range of licensed professionals including nurses, dentists, pharmacists, mental health practitioners and veterinarians. The principals of anonymity serve those in professions who wish it, but many are now speaking out about their long-term recovery with pride.

Encouraging and convincing a person with a substance use disorder to begin the journey on the road to recovery requires trust and hope. Perhaps the journey best begins with solid footing on common ground. It could be provided by G.P.S.—Guided Peer Support.  Early on it was determined that guidance needed to be informed and educated guidance. The significance of this led to the recognition of the need for education and training of the cadres of peer recovery coaches. My introduction to the advent of Peer Recovery Coaching (PRC) was through The Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) and later through the Center for Addiction Recovery Training (CART).  The Recovery Alliance (RA) of El Paso was a pioneer in developing a peer-to-peer services recovery model. It included connecting peer specialists with veterans. “Peer developed, peer driven, and peer run,” explained Ben Bass, RA Executive Director. Ben is still an active Recovery Ambassador

During my service on the board of Faces and Voices of Recovery, we developed core elements in growing and promoting the reality of recovery through those with long-term recovery. We gave voice through messaging and training. We began to see the possible value of connecting directly with those seeking recovery. Through Advocates for Recovery-Colorado’s (AFR) Peer Coach Training, I became a Peer Coach and Trainer.  Later, I was a communications contributor to the Peer Coach Academy–Colorado program.  These training programs grew to include all of the requirements to support the Colorado Peer and Family Specialist Certification (CPFS), based on experience and competencies as set by the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC).  Colorado Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health financially supported agencies that included well defined clinical and continuing peer recovery-coaching services. I have long been an advocate of providing career opportunities and added professionalism for those in long-term recovery who wish to be of service and be reasonably compensated. Medicaid is a resource. Situations and circumstances such as the opiate epidemic and justice reform may accelerate this if wisdom prevails and economic sense emerges supporting broad recovery support services.

The FIRST STEP Act provides action on criminal justice reform. Ultimately, the FIRST STEP Act is one step in the right direction for reducing mass incarceration in the United States. The Second Chance Act reauthorization was recently included in the FIRST STEP Act.  The changes will reduce incarceration for a number of lesser offenses, many involving drugs. Recent news indicates that Oklahoma has taken its first step in releasing several hundred inmates serving time for drug and other nonviolent offenses, reducing felonies to misdemeanors.. Governor Kevin Stitt, a Republican, hailed the decision to give hundreds of Oklahomans “a second chance.” He spoke about provisions for support for those re-entering the communities, including IDs and driver’s licenses, along with other reasons and resources to reduce recidivism. I was pleased to note that the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services – Certified Peer Recovery Support Specialist. The Certified Peer Recovery Support Specialist (PRSS) fulfills a unique role in the support and recovery from mental illness and substance abuse disorders. I will pay attention to how this valuable resource is used in supporting re-entry needs, as it will be happening in other states across the country. It is obvious we can’t arrest our way out of the current addiction epidemic, nor can there be wholesale “get out of jail free” cards issued.  The focus will be the supervision and instruction on how to “stay out of jail,” and, if on probation, to make it the last probation ever to be served.

The fact remains that crime and public safety concerns generated by addictive behavior will continue to be addressed within the justice system. We have an assortment of tools to be used in skilled hands to help individuals to be free of drugs and maintain freedom. There is Medically Assisted Recovery Support (MARS) to overcome Substance Use Disorders (SUD). Recovery Management requires pro-longed recovery connections. Those invested dollars benefit communities, families, and individuals, and at lower costs than those incurred through the spectrum of Justice system actions.  I close with recognition and appreciation for the long and dedicated effort of so many to create, pass, renew, and implement, the Second Chance Act. There is support available through the OJP Second Chance Act Grant Program. Let’s pay attention and support those who have the opportunity afforded by the choice and chance to change behavior for a healthy and purposeful life.

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Merlyn Karst