Jerome Jenkins journeyed from self-isolation to peer specialist: ‘I’ve walked in their shoes.’

SPRINGFIELD – Jerome Jenkins had lived a satisfying if young life. He had friends and a supportive family, earned good grades in school, was passionate about music and had a well-paying job at Lowe’s.

That all changed when he just about cleared his 20thbirthday. He began imagining — no, believing — the television was talking to him, He perceived threats around every corner at work, forcing him to retreat to the bathroom for hours – if he even made it out of his car before being gripped by panic.

While never outgoing, he had an easy sense of humor and a quiet, retiring charm. By the time he turned 21, he barely made it out of his mother’s basement for years at a time.

There were hospitalizations and strong medications that made him feel out of sorts, in a dreamlike state.

“Luckily my mom called CHD. Once you’ve isolated yourself for a period of time … it’s hard. Outreach workers would come to my house and make sure I took my meds but mostly they treated me like a regular person,” said Jenkins, who has since been hired as a peer specialist for the agency’s widespread Adult Community Clinical Services (ACCS) program.

The program is state-funded and among the largest in the region – essentially a rebooted model encouraged and funded by the Baker administration to meld clinical services with peer specialists and recovery coaches.

A key criterion for peer specialists is to have “relevant lived experience” to help others overcome challenges they have shared. CHD’s Peer Recovery Director Andy Beresky said the lived experience component is not just a catch phrase, but is tightly tied to the 2018 state contracts awarded to community-based treatment providers and a sincere philosophy.

“Who better to know than the people who have been on the inside of these experiences?  There is a wisdom and a resilience to those who have come out on the other side. Who better to know how it is to be hospitalized? To be deprived of their liberty or go through a trauma?” Beresky asked.

Jenkins progressed from attending a “Hearing Voices” support group, to running that group to getting hired as a full-time employee two years ago.

He is now among 12 certified peer specialists linked to the Springfield office. He has a client base of about 16, though their needs ebb and flow.

“I’m not steering the ship,” Jenkins said. “I feel like I work alongside people. We are like, real-life – not really success stories –but we’ve walked in their shoes.”

Today, Jenkins has a five-year-old daughter and is in a stable relationship. He lives in his own apartment and plans to resume his college education. He is thinking of pursuing a business degree.

But most importantly, he feels more like his “old self,” before the voices drove him into his mother’s basement.

“I have to thank my mom first. She convinced me to get help by telling me she wanted ‘the old Jerome’ back,” he said. 

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