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Mental patients find understanding in therapy led by peers

TAUNTON -- Years ago, Jess Zaller came to the Pathways mental health program as a day patient. In and out of institutions, he had fought mental illness since childhood. His life felt like a nightmare of chaos and despair.

Zaller, 45, was back in a Pathways therapy group last week, but this time as a leader, listening carefully as members laid bare the pain of their fears and compulsions. When he delicately pointed the way, it was often in the first person, using his own hard lessons learned:

"Our lives are at stake," he told members. "It takes a lot of courage to walk a path of recovery, and each one of us develops our own path."

Massachusetts is beginning to develop a corps of people like Zaller who have been through the depths of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression, and recovered enough that they can help others with mental illness.

Such comradely aid has long been exchanged informally, or scattershot at mental health venues. But now the state has launched a new job category -- certified peer specialist -- meant to formalize these relationships and gradually, they hope, get peer counseling reimbursed routinely by insurers and Medicaid.

"There's something about receiving support from someone who's gone through exactly what you're going through now that people find invaluable," said Michael O'Neill, the state's assistant commissioner for mental health services.

A few handfuls of Massachusetts residents, including Zaller, have completed the eight -day training session and exams to be certified as peer specialists. On Monday, they are to be recognized at a State House ceremony.

The new field must work through many possible problems, from the potential for relapse among specialists to the potential for resistance from more traditional mental health staffers. But O'Neill expects the state's corps to grow to hundreds.

Massachusetts is redesigning its mental health system to be more user-friendly, he said, and "peer support is a fundamental element of that redesigned system." In the coming months, Massachusetts will be setting up six regional centers where peer specialists will work with clients and support each other in their fledgling vocation, O'Neill said .

The concept has taken off in 30 states. In half a dozen, Medicaid, the public insurance program for the poor and chronically ill, pays for the services, said Paolo del Vecchio, associate director for consumer affairs at the federal government's Center for Mental Health Services.

"Over the past five years, we've really seen the development of a new mental health profession emerging," he said.

The growth of the peer specialist profession comes against the backdrop of a sweeping national shift toward greater optimism that those in dire condition may improve or recover, and toward giving people with mental illness more control over the help they get. People with mental illness are not passive patients, the thinking goes; they can help themselves and as they get better, they can help others .

In their work, peer specialists are expected to share their stories of recovery when relevant to their clients. They may have learned skills worth sharing, or simply inspire hope by being much better than they once were.

The work goes beyond a typical speaker at a 12-step meeting.

It can include helping a patient in a psychiatric hospital make the shift back to living at home, or supporting an emergency room patient in crisis. A specialist might remind a team of clinicians that their patient is in a kind of hell, or take a lonely client out for pizza.

Early research, which is just beginning to accumulate, suggests that peer specialists may be particularly useful with patients who would normally resist help from the mental health system, said Larry Davidson, a Yale professor who conducts studies on peer specialists.

People with mental illness sometimes feel disliked by the professional staff who treat them, he said; it appears that with peers, "they feel less disliked and more understood."

Studies show that "people in recovery can provide services at least as well as people who don't have that experience," Davidson said. Hard data are being collected now on whether they offer "value added," he said.

Anecdotal reports of successful work by peer specialists abound. In Georgia, which has 340, they have proven particularly useful in helping discharged state hospital patients build new lives at home, said Gwen Skinner, the state's top mental health official.

Though the new field is growing, resistance remains, Davidson and others said.

They worry that staff and clinicians without mental illness could feel threatened by the influx of newcomers whose experience with illness is considered an asset. Traditional staff could also worry about being replaced by peer specialists. Certified peer specialists are supposed to earn a typical mental health staff salary of $12 an hour to $15 an hour on an entry level, said Deborah Delman executive director of M-Power, the Massachusetts mental health advocacy group that runs the peer training courses. But some peer workers who are not certified may earn less, she said.

After they are certified, Massachusetts peer specialists will continue to be overseen by The Transformation Center, a statewide training organization that is supposed to ensure they maintain ethical standards and continue their education.

The peer specialists also pose staffing issues. What if, for example, a peer specialist works with patients at a state hospital, then has a relapse and is rehospitalized there, then resumes the job? Boundaries and definitions may get fuzzy; confidentiality may become a concern.

Also, Davidson said, if supervisors view their patients as problems, then adding peer specialists to their staff is asking for more problems. The challenge, he said, is for them to shift to thinking about all people with mental illness as "having assets and strengths to help solve problems."

Judging by responses in Zaller's small therapy group in Taunton, some people with mental illness immediately see the benefits of being helped by a peer.

"He's not looking at us through a book," said one group member, Diane Silvia. "He can relate to us, and we can relate to him."

Carey Goldberg can be reached at goldberg@globe.com.

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