Accelerating Best Practices in Peer Support Around the World

More than a Job, Peer Support is a Calling

Sayaka Hino

For Colleen Vaughan, the path to be a nationally recognized mental health peer support specialist at the Veterans Administration (VA) has not been easy, but her story illustrates the power that peer support can have on both supporter and supportee. After dealing with mental health issues from childhood on through multiple hospitalizations and even homelessness, Colleen has empowered many veterans and non-veterans, including herself, to become more than their diagnoses.

Working as a peer supporter helped launched her career in mental health as she went on to earn a Masters in Psychology and certification as a Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner. Colleen’s experience in peer support is rich with insights and inspiration, reminding us that for many, peer support is more than a job, it’s a calling.

Getting Started with Peer Support
“Wow, I came here to help someone else and this is pretty awesome because I can use it too”

While Colleen was in day treatment for schizophrenia affective disorder 13 years ago, her case manager heard about a part-time opportunity to be a peer bridger, the first of its kind in North Carolina, and suggested Colleen go for it. She joined five others in providing peer support to individuals as they transitioned from a psychiatric hospital back to their communities.

Colleen remembers that the training they received was “life-changing. For the first time, someone told me that there was something I could do to impact how this illness does or doesn’t control me. No one had ever told me that. I was always at the mercy of people telling me what to do.” With pivotal support from the other five peer supporters, she flourished in this role; within six months she was a full time peer supporter, and within one year, she was the director of the program. Colleen went on to supervise between 15 and 20 mental health peer specialists in this program.

The Mental Shift from Patient to Person
“It’s like flipping a switch”

From Colleen’s own experience undergoing her first training and throughout the course of training peer supporters since, there is a profound mental shift that happens for each peer supporter. She describes the first half of trainings as learning about oneself and telling one’s recovery story, and the other half as how to use what was learned to inspire and role model for others.

However, between those two halves of the training is what she calls “absolute vulnerability. Where you’re telling your recovery story from a different perspective… how do I describe my pain, how do I describe the challenges in a way that will inspire hope.” This, she has found, is the time when a mental shift occurs from patient to person, when individuals realize that they do not need to be defined by their diagnoses. That is one reason why, after making the transition to the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) at the VA, she is still asked to do the orientation for veterans who are becoming peer supporters.

After telling her story, she says that even after 7 years she continues to hear, “Really? You hear voices? Wait, wait, and you have a job?… I thought I was the only one.” Providing that little bit of hope inspires others to make that mental shift in themselves.

Colleen related one story about witnessing that mental shift that exemplifies the unique and individualized nature of peer support. In working as a peer supporter, she has noticed that having mental illness is “kind of like a horse with blinders. We live, breathe our illness and we forget the importance of having fun and doing things just for the sheer enjoyment.”

So when she was working with one man, she asked him what he would like to do if everything was perfect, and he responded: I would like a girlfriend. After digging a bit deeper, she learned that he felt he couldn’t have a girlfriend because he was afraid of going to the movies, and girlfriends liked going to the movies. Armed with that knowledge, over the course of 6 months, they took baby steps. Driving into the parking lot and sitting there; role playing buying a ticket; buying a ticket but not going inside; and so on and so forth until the momentous day he was able to sit inside for a whole movie during the day. Followed by almost the same procedure to watch a movie at night.

While this was not something a doctor could have prescribed, the man “ultimately graduated from the [peer support] program, because he got a girlfriend, got engaged, and they got married.”

Advocating for the Discipline of Peer Support
“It’s not better than, it doesn’t replace. It adds to and enhances an already great system”

In her 13 years in the field of peer support, Colleen has worked tirelessly to advance the discipline of peer support locally and nationally. She has collaborated with the University of North Carolina School of Social Work to create the peer support certification process for North Carolina as well as with the VA headquarters in Washington, DC to create the peer support position description, requirements, and core competencies.

With the recent mandate to hire hundreds of new peer supporters at the VA, she has been providing mentorship to the veterans now becoming peer supporters as they navigate the challenging road ahead. When asked the most important piece of advice she could give to a new peer support specialist, she shared two: 1) not to neglect personal wellness, and 2) “learn how to speak up in a way that you’re heard rather than dismissed.”

Colleen Vaughan’s passion for peer support is contagious, and invaluable to promoting peer support as part of the conventional mental health care system. Peer support, in her words, is “that missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle that just pulls the entire picture into place.”


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