Heidi HyunJin Lee
Oil on canvas
30 x 40 inches
By Heidi HyunJin Lee
After reading the article, “A Certification Board for Peer Specialists Is Coming to Massachusetts” by the Wild Flower Alliance, I better understood the significance of the NAMI motto, “Nothing about us without us.”
I have not yet been directly involved in policy, but my observation is that change comes with great resistance and the process is nowhere near as simple as new problems develop with every new solution.
There is nothing shocking about what the WF Alliance is reporting. Legislators are trying to enact policies that will create standards, hold people accountable, and maintain some level of quality in mental healthcare. At least that seems to be the intent.
But everyone understands that there are certain fields that require an insiders’ perspective more than others. The field of Peer Support & Peer Work (now also known as SHW or Social Health Peer Work) or Recovery Coaching is such an example.
The current medical model of healthcare too often views those in recovery as insurance liabilities. We are contacted by their case managers when we become a financial burden. This legislation speaks of the State Board being given authority to “fine, censor, revoke, suspend, or deny” a certified peer specialist authorization to practice if they need to be “disciplined” and will be expected to “demonstrate at least 2 years of sustained recovery.”
Anyone who has been in or is in recovery knows that it is nonlinear, non-definitive, and at times vastly different for each individual. This does not mean that we cannot create benchmarks to comply with state and federal insurance standards. It means that we need to do the harder work of creating more inclusive options that are feasible.
This means that we will need to stop being complicit in the maintenance of existing mental health practices that use subtle to blatant policing that punishes those who seek recovery for personal and professional sustainability and growth.
The theory and praxis of mental healthcare clinicians existing as the ultimate decision makers for individualized treatment plans and oftentimes considered the majority “experts” in legislative decisions pertaining to peers has proven not only to be ineffective but harmful over time due to its own stigmas, insurance pressures and regulations, which lack the nuanced understanding required to tackle such a mental health crisis. Very few of the disadvantaged who have received long term mental healthcare in this city or state within the past several decades would need to be convinced otherwise.
Those in the position of initiating and pushing forth legislation do not fully grasp the practical inefficiencies of current policies in place for peers. They speak of equity, diversity, and inclusion, but they do not believe their own jargon enough to make appropriate changes to make it sustainable for the peers being impacted, rather than what professionally needs to upheld by those with enough leverage.
Many who are not peers would not understand the stressors and discrimination that we face daily simply because of who we are. We have been disempowered by society and made to believe that we should be content with what is offered to us.
Whether that be in the workforce where we are paid an unsustainable living wage, being asked to do things that we have not been trained for nor should be expected to do, or made to feel an inconvenience when we need to take time to manage a condition that was of no fault of our own.
Oftentimes, employers and organizations see the benefits of hiring peers because they hopefully see our complex strengths. And then there’s also the desire to see what the hype is about and to hire for grant or DEI compliance-appearing purposes. Either way, change is necessary in the way that this state and city adapts to its current needs through its mental healthcare system.
Peers are more than per diem workers who hold to their own code of ethics. When we are well supported and allowed to thrive in least restrictive spaces and communities, we have the capacity to see existing problems because they impact us directly. We are fully invested because this is our life.
No one asks to live with a chronic disability. But when we do, we must have leaders and policy makers who see it as their priority to protect and reduce existing harm that unintentionally leads to exploitation of the vulnerable. This is how the character of a society is revealed: in how we treat those considered least heard and seen.
As a Certified Peer Specialist, I define equity as the right for each to dream.
We have the right to dream for fair livable wages. We have the right to be treated with dignity and not have to fight to gain respect from our team members simply because we are not clinicians. We have the right to be promoted and to build a career because we contribute in significant ways, regardless of the challenges we face.
This is the essence of peer work: That we can see the humanity in ourselves because of the excruciating work that we have had to do in our own recovery, which then allows us to see the complex humanity, beauty, and potential in the lives of others. Especially of those who are also in recovery.
There is no course on life about how to deeply understand and practice empathy, resilience, and to hold another’s pain with great sensitivity and compassion. It is not a skill that is easily taught or obtained. But every peer I have encountered has earned this skill through their own lived experience.
It is time now for policy makers and other leaders of this city and state to recognize that the current mental health crisis will not be remedied if we do not acknowledge, equitably support, and utilize this tremendous workforce.
And the first step requires inviting Peers to the table — where we have always belonged.
Heidi HyunJin Lee
CPS, M.Ed., MPP Candidate