Meghan Caughey was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 19. Now, after years of working with her illness, she stands out as an instigator of change in mental healthcare services across Oregon.
Not only is Caughey the senior director of peer wellness services at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, but since 2006 she’s dedicated her life to improving peer wellness programs by creating community-based programs that help people function with mental health diagnoses and recover from homelessness and drug and alcohol addictions.
For most of her life, Caughey was unable to work a full-time job, and was always the one receiving mental health services. However, when she turned 50 she realized she’d been living with schizophrenia long enough to seek a more permanent position and return the favor.
She began as the peer wellness coordinator in Benton County where she found a “natural fit.” Creating the program from scratch, it turned into a one-to-one mentoring program that empowers people to direct their own recovery with peer wellness specialists reminding them to take their medications and explore their relationships.
Because many specialists have either been through the judicial system, or have been living with mental health issues themselves, they’re able to foster mutual trust, empathy and understanding.
Still, Caughey admits, a lot of people misunderstand the role of peer wellness specialists. “My job is to help people understand.”
Before Caughey created the program in 2006, there weren’t any peer wellness services in Oregon. She attended one training workshop near Pendleton in 2007 which was called peer mentoring certification “but there was no actual certification,” she said, adding that it gave her an opportunity to network with people from across the state including another peer wellness director diagnosed with schizophrenia. The week-long training on listening skills and person-centered planning ended up being “stressful and overwhelming. There was too much to digest in just one week of training,” said Caughey who later designed her own training program focused on physical and mental health, calling it more holistic.
“Both kinds of services involve people who experience psychiatric diagnoses or mental health issues,” she said, but peer support focuses primarily on mental health. “Peer wellness training allows specialists to help with many different dimensions of health.”
Together, peer specialists and participants explore their spiritual, educational, nutritional, mental, and emotional health and learn self-management tools in a respectful and engaging atmosphere such as how they relate to their environment, their exercise regimens and how much sleep they need.
Caughey’s experience led her to Cascadia in 2009 where its peer wellness program, under her leadership, has flourished. With more than 800 employees across more than 75 locations in Multnomah, Clackamas and Lane counties, Cascadia offers mental health services to 12,000 people each year.
At the same time, the number of people in jail with mental illnesses has grown exponentially, and Cascadia has managed to provide services for $382 a week, a miniscule amount compared to the expense of a week in jail or the hospital. Their services include mental health case management, counseling services, medication prescribing and addiction treatments. Cascadia also offers transitional and permanent housing for people with mental health illnesses.
Caughey's leadership in changing peer wellness programs in Oregon is far from over, and she recognizes there’s still more to do.
For now Caughey oversees 25 specialists in her department, but she is confident that number will continue to grow, particularly as the coordinated care organizations play a more commanding role in mental healthcare.
“Too many people see these issues as a disability, but Cascadia sees it as a connection and a source of hope. We want everyone to have a full life in the community.” That, for Caughey, represents growth.
Olivia can be reached at [email protected].