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Community Mental Health Benefits from Peer Support

Symmetry Care's Independence Place sets example
March 11, 2016

Despite Oregon’s reputation as a pioneer in healthcare transformation, its reputation for mental health services has been lacking, particularly around community-based services. With this blemish on the state’s healthcare reputation, it’s easy to overlook innovative programs that are working to create a strong community-based mental health system.

Independence Place in Hines, Oregon, operated by Symmetry Care, Inc. (formerly Harney Behavioral Health), is one of those programs.

Not only does Independence Place, a dual-diagnosis, co-ed, residential treatment facility, provide person-centered services with the goal of helping individuals obtain a higher level of independence in their lives, it also incorporates peer support into its efforts.

Peer support follows the principle that individuals who have lived through mental-health challenges can support their peers in facing similar challenges and in making healthy choices.

John Barrett, a qualified mental health associate (QMHA) and case manager at Independence Place, exemplifies the power of peer support.

Barrett, who has a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder, was once a client with Symmetry Care. Before his treatment with Symmetry Care, John spent time in different psychiatric wards throughout the state and had often been homeless.

“I’ve been homeless in Portland, Eugene, and Roseburg. I’ve been down and out, looking for returnable cans to buy a cup of coffee or alcohol.”

Barrett was also on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for five years.

“I was really glad to be able to be on it (SSI) and really fortunate to be able to come off it,” Barrett said.

After receiving treatment through Symmetry Care and stabilizing his life, Barrett received a certification in peer support through Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc. and then worked on Symmetry Care’s Intentional Peer Support (IPS) team.

“Working on the Intentional Peer Support team gave me some dignity,” Barrett explained. “I was doing something productive and it was huge for my self-esteem.”

Barrett has held his current position with Independence Place for five years. While he has had other jobs in the past, his work at Independence Place comes with an understanding that makes his contribution and commitment exceptional.

“I can take those horrible experiences (from his struggles with mental illness) and use them in my job,” Barrett said. “It’s not lost time.”

Barrett noted that he’s not cured of his mental health issues. He takes medication and manages his symptoms. Working in the mental health field helps as does exercise, rest, and eating well.

“I definitely have a lot in common with my clients. I’m open about it (my mental health history). I tell people. It’s an advantage for me.”

And Barrett isn’t the only Independence Place staff member who has lived through the challenges of mental illness; five staff members are former Independence Place or Symmetry Care clients. Independence Place also utilizes individuals from the peer support team to fill in as needed.

Barrett acknowledged the role of Symmetry Care director Chris Siegner in Barrett’s and Independence Place’s success.

“He has a progressive and innovative approach, and he has his finger on the pulse of mental health. He deserves a lot of credit.”

Having lived and witnessed the transformation that is possible for those who struggle with mental illness, Barrett’s advice to other communities or organizations: have clients help each other.

“Recognize clients as assets, as assets to the community. They know a lot about mental health.” Joanne can be reached at [email protected].