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Sound Health is a recurring series that airs twice each month on WGLT's Sound Ideas program.Support for Sound Health comes from Carle Health, bringing care, coverage, support, healthcare research and education to central Illinois and beyond.

Heartland peer support pledges hope to people battling substance abuse and mental distress

Three women posting for photo
Eric Stock
Left to right, Heartland Community College's Kelly Pyle, intern Cecilia Johnson and Sonja Workman with the Center for Human Services discussed Heartland's peer recovery support program.

When someone is battling substance abuse or a mental health problem, who better to help than someone who has been through it themselves? That's the thought behind an emerging field in mental health and one that Heartland Community College has joined to help find and train more mental health professionals.

In this edition of Sound Health, Heartland's new peer support recovery program shows how it looks to fill a growing need in mental health care.

Cecilia Johnson of Bloomington says she's been in substance abuse recovery for years.

"I have also struggled in my recovery. I also have mental disorders,” Johnson said.

She signed up for Heartland's peer support recovery certification, and has completed a semester of classwork. Now, she's doing an internship at a mental health treatment center in Bloomington.

Johnson helps others who are going through some of the same challenges she's faced. Some of the work covers the basics — scheduling meetings for clients, providing information about recovery or the legal system — but it also includes being a mentor and cheerleader.

Johnson said she's glad to advocate for her clients because she understands how hard it is to speak up when you are the one who needs help.

“People like myself can come in and help in those centers or in these communities and they don’t have to feel so alone,” said Johnson, adding if you don't speak up for yourself, no one else will.

That may be changing.

Kelly Pyle is interim dean of health sciences at Heartland. Pyle said mental health and substance abuse recovery have undergone a revolution over the last decade. Peer support is one part of that.

“We’ve come to realize that there is real value in having somebody who has walked in those same shoes and circumstances as the person who is seeking recovery,” said Pyle, adding those support specialists also can share advice on treatment options with other mental health professionals.

“From my own experiences, I know this was what was really helpful for me, or I have identified some resources that I think might be helpful that as a team you haven’t considered,” Pyle said, referring to what a peer recovery support specialist might suggest.

Pyle said peer support is part of a move away from the idea mental health treatment is linear. She said the health care community now understands there are several paths to better health and what works for one person might not work for someone else.

Heartland started the certification program last fall with help from a $710,000 state grant. The program is the first of its kind at an Illinois community college. Seven students signed up in the first year. Two students are doing their internships this fall.

The McLean County Center for Human Services in Bloomington works with Heartland to connect the students to internships through its Learning Lab, where it also runs supervised practices with people the center serves.

Students get a minimum 300 hours of clinical experience. After the internship, students have to pass a state exam to get certified. Then, they are ready for entry-level work in behavioral health.

Sonja Workman runs the internship program at the center. She also teaches classes on peer support. Workman said there is growing demand for peer recovery support specialists for mental health and substance abuse.

“There’s a need in emergency departments. There’s needs in behavioral health centers. There’s needs in hospitals. We could see the need in a school system,” Workman said, adding the Center for Human Services has four peer support recovery specialists on staff.

Johnson hopes that might be her one day. She wants to help others who have gone through the same substance abuse or mental health struggles.

The peer support training has helped her own recovery, she said, adding she sees the job as building a relationship with a client, a bond that goes beyond the time in treatment.

Johnson said recovery is ongoing, so support should be, too.

“It does not end,” she said. “A lot of people with substance abuse disorders, as far as I can see, once we leave that facility and leave that support that we have, we don’t have any more support.”

Johnson wants to work mostly with young adults on how to curb substance abuse, but she's concerned a growing number of older adults need such treatment.

Workman said the goal of recovery is to empower people to live a self-directed life and try to reach their potential.

“That is what we want to demonstrate to the community and reduce that stigma that we continue to see and provide community education that recovery is possible,” said Workman, adding peer support offers hope.

Heartland's student counseling services will host a social services fair from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday to help students struggling with mental health or stress find resources on campus and in the community.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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