FolkTime Looks to Expand Peer Support Services for Veterans

Its mental health treatment model emphasizes recovery, not diagnosis
The Lund Report

May 9, 2012 -- FolkTime, a 26-year-old nonprofit providing community socialization for people with mental illness, has just signed a contract with Clackamas Behavioral Health to start providing peer support services – including job coaching, arts activities and support groups – to veterans with mental health challenges.

Starting June 1, FolkTime will hire four part-time peer support specialists and a program manager, who will go through 40 hours of training on communication, mutual respect and equality, based on a national curriculum called the Wellness Recovery Action Plan.

The new project is an expansion of FolkTime’s existing services, which include meals, unstructured activities and socialization – as well as informal consultations with peer support specialists employed by other agencies.

Aaron Barrow, a peer support specialist for the Veterans Administration, dropped in Monday afternoon to have lunch and talk to some of the organization's members, all of whom have mental health diagnoses and were referred by outside agencies.

“By definition, I'm a veteran myself and have had mental health challenges,” Barrow said. “My job is to help the guys lead better, more fulfilling lives.”

Barrow is only one of only four VA-employed peer support specialists in the Portland area, and has been working there for a year.

But peer support programs are becoming more popular, for veterans and others with mental health challenges – both at the state level, where the role of non-traditional healthcare workers in coordinated care is a hot topic, and at the federal level, where funding is being set aside for peer support.

Barrow said VA hospitals all over the country are receiving additional funding to hire peer counselors to help veterans with mental health challenges.

“The traditional mental health model is, wait until there's a problem and fix it. The VA has tried to embrace recovery to save us a lot of time and energy,” Barrow said.

While state officials have discussed what type of licensure and training peer support workers should have, the fact that peer support specialists have had similar challenges and are no more or less educated than the people they support is what makes such programs work: “If you try to professionalize it too much, you lose the whole point,” said Tom Brady, FolkTime's executive director.

FolkTime has 300 members, all of whom were referred by mental health providers and are diagnosed with “axis one” disorders – that is, mental illnesses that are considered treatable.

“We're not interested in one element, which would be the diagnosis,” Brady said. “My approach is, if you've experienced mental health challenges, we need you.”

The organization has always provided community integration and peer supports, offering art and writing classes, a choral group and other activities at its sites in northeast Portland, Sandy and Oregon City, which are open three days a week. The organization also offers 175 meals per week at its Portland and Oregon City locations, with meals at the Sandy location provided by a local chapter of Meals on Wheels.

FolkTime is also teaching storytelling classes and also offers spiritual counseling through a non-sectarian partner group.

“We're trying to break down the wall of isolation,” Brady said.


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