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I must know that we have to practice and certify extra peer supporters to save lots of lives – CALmatters

In summary

Governor Gavin Newsom has called for the role of peer providers in mental health services to be expanded. He now has the option of including SB 803 in the law.

By Keris Jän Myrick, especially for CalMatters

Keris Jän Myrick is the Peer and Allied Health professor for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health [kmyrick@dmh.lacounty.gov].

I have had many ups and downs in my battle with mental health, especially with relentless voices. Many people have helped me survive and become a leader who can serve my community. One thing is certain: Without the support of my peers – people who have had the same tough experiences as me – I wouldn't be where I am today. I couldn't even be alive.

I am now Chief of Peer and Allied Health for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. I am responsible for ensuring that there are approximately 500 county and nonprofits peer support specialists serving as part of the practice of the peer profession. I know what it is like to need help – and to give it.

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I answered the phone early one morning with a wavering voice that reached for connection and support. Like me, the caller was a black person with a mental illness. During this time of physical isolation, an invisible pandemic, and racial unrest, my phone keeps ringing.

Peer supporters do an incredible job of helping others, but their role is not officially recognized by the state of California. This week lawmakers overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 803, which would create a system for defining and certifying the work of peer support. Governor Gavin Newsom has called for the role of peer providers to be expanded. He now has the opportunity to sign this bill. I urge him to do so.

Thirty years ago I was treated for severe mental illness while going in and out of hospitals. I was disabled and had trouble getting better. I didn't know if my voices and delusions were going to go away, but like everyone else, I needed purpose in my life. For me, that meant going back to work and school. I saw others with similar diagnoses and thought, "Why can't I?"

I attended conferences and became familiar with the recovery movement. I went to see people who had been through what I had been through, people who were like me – an African American who heard voices.

There weren't many executives who fit this bill. Eventually I was introduced to Jackie McKinney, an African American who had struggled with homelessness, mental illness, and addiction for years and who later became a respected psychotherapist. Most of all, she was a leader in the peer movement.

She took me under her wing and told me about how she returned to graduate school and how people supported her. We kept in touch. I would call her and we would talk – share things I couldn't talk to anyone about.

She was my first peer supporter – although I didn't call her that. I had others too, including a colleague in Southern California whom I met. Once, when I was feeling suicidal and was scared of being alone, I called him and he dropped what he was doing and drove straight to my home.

I know the power of peer support – someone who has had the experience of working through trauma, mental illness, or substance use. As colleagues, we navigated the systems and got stuck in the gaps. We can connect based on this shared experience. We can support others with training.

The federal Medicaid program and the Department of Veterans Affairs have recognized the value of peer specialists in helping others with mental health problems. With Medicaid, US dollars can help pay peer support specialists – but only in states that standardize training and certify workers. With the exception of South Dakota, every state in the country has such a process – with the exception of California.

SB 803, introduced by Senator Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose, will initiate this process in California. At a time when millions of Californians feel isolated and fearful, this will help us grow the workforce of certified peer support specialists to help us manage our worsening mental health crisis.

It is time to legally and officially recognize the unique and important role that peers play. Governor Newsom, can we count on you?

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