As the Director Of Recovery Supports here at CHD, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that I have a complicated relationship with the word “recovery.” The term tends to be associated with substance usage, but there is also a robust “recovery community” when it comes to mental wellness. That’s where things tend to get a bit complicated for me.
In the behavioral health industry, there has been movement away from strictly a “maintenance” based system, which prioritizes “stability” and a reduction of symptoms. An emerging model goes beyond that, encouraging hope and the ability for people who have been given mental health diagnoses to fulfill their goals and dreams in life.
One of the most vital characteristics of a truly recovery-oriented model is honoring an individual’s self-determination, rather than simply their “compliance.” That’s largely where Peer Support Specialists can make a huge contribution to recovery.
The very first part of our Code of Ethics states: “The primary responsibility of Certified Peer Specialists is to help people achieve what they want most in life, their own goals, needs and wants. Certified Peer Specialists will be guided by the principles of self-determination for all.”
As peer support becomes more recognized and utilized as a means of promoting “recovery,” it’s important to also point out that as Peer Support Specialists, we also have a duty to promote trauma-informed practices. One of the most fundamental aspects of a trauma-informed approach is to shift the conversation from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”
With that in mind, one of the hallmarks of true peer support is that we make no assumptions of mental illness.
In peer support roles, when we say that we are guided by the principle of self-determination, we put our money where our mouths are. If someone does not necessarily identify with a mental health diagnosis that they have been given, we explore with them how they most feel comfortable making meaning of that all-important question: “What happened to you?” Often times their behaviors and ways of being in this world — although they may look strange or distressing to others — make perfect sense given what they’ve experienced in life. It is our job to honor this.
Getting back to the issue of the word “recovery;” this can often pose a real conundrum. If someone doesn’t necessarily identify with the psychiatric diagnosis that they’ve been given, they may not see the need to “recover” from anything. Sometimes it is simply a matter of continuing to move towards their hopes, goals and dreams in life while navigating setbacks, rather than looking for something from which they need to “recover.”
It can be tricky holding these types of values dear when we are so deeply embedded in a mental health system that primarily values the medical model. One of the tools we use in peer support is reevaluating how we have come to know what we know.
We all have a lens through which we view the world. It’s a lens that’s been constructed from our life’s experiences, our cultural backgrounds, our families, where we’ve lived and what we’ve seen. These lenses are what allow us to make sense of the world around us.
How one person makes meaning of their experiences can be drastically different than how someone else does, as their lenses have been shaped by different life experiences. With this in mind, it’s important that we’re able to hold multiple truths.
How someone is making meaning of their experiences — that is their truth — even if it may mean something different to us. When we’re doing this work with integrity, it’s important to simultaneously hold both pieces, so that we’re able to honor the stories that people tell us about their lives, and also so we can start to explore more deeply with them how we can best support them.
As we reach the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to highlight the importance of honoring the stories of not only the people we support here at CHD, but also those in our lives: our loved ones, our friends and families. Whether or not they identify life-altering events as things that they necessarily need to “recover” from, or simply setbacks while they journey toward creating the lives that they want.
I also want to take this time to honor the bravery and resilience of those who are able to boldly tell their stories, in their own words and with their own meanings.