In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for expanding the role of peer providers in mental health services; he now has the opportunity to sign SB 803 into law.

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By Keris Jän Myrick, Special to CalMatters

Keris Jän Myrick is chief of Peer and Allied Health Professions for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health,

I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my battle with mental health, especially with unrelenting voices. Many people have helped me survive and become a leader who’s able to serve my community. One thing is certain: without the support of peers – people who have been through the same hard experiences I’ve been through – I wouldn’t be where I am today. I might not even be alive.

Today, I’m chief of Peer and Allied Health Professions for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. I’m responsible for ensuring that about 500 peer support specialists for the county and nonprofit agencies operate within the scope of practice of the peer profession. I know what it’s like to need help – and to give it.

I answered the phone early one morning to a wavering voice reaching out for connection and support. Like me, the caller was a Black person with a mental health condition. During this time of physical isolation, an invisible pandemic and racial unrest, my phone is constantly ringing.

Peer supporters do an incredible job helping others, but their role isn’t officially recognized by the state of California. This week, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 803, which would create a system for defining and certifying the work of peer support. Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for expanding the role of peer providers. He now has the opportunity to sign this bill into law. I strongly urge him to do so.

Thirty years ago, I was being treated for serious mental illness, going in and out of hospitals. I was on disability and struggling with how to get better. I didn’t know if my voices and delusions would go away, but, like anyone else, I needed meaning and purpose in my life. For me, that meant going back to work and school. I saw others with similar diagnoses doing it and thought, “Why can’t I?”

I started attending conferences and became familiar with the recovery movement. I sought out people who’d been through what I was going through, people who were like me – an African American who experienced hearing voices.

There weren’t many in leadership that fit that bill. Eventually I was introduced to Jackie McKinney, an African American woman who spent years struggling with homelessness, mental illness and addiction and went on to become an honored psychotherapist. Most importantly, she was a leader in the peer movement.

She took me under her wing and told me how she returned to graduate school, and how people supported her. We kept in touch. I’d call her and we’d talk – sharing things I couldn’t talk to anyone else about.

She was my first peer supporter – though I didn’t call her that. I had others too, including a peer worker in Southern California that I got to know. Once, when I was feeling suicidal and afraid of being alone, I called him, and he dropped what he was doing and drove straight to my home.

I know the power of support from a peer – someone who has been through the experience of trying to work through trauma, mental illness or substance use. As peers, we’ve navigated the systems and fallen into the gaps. We can connect because of this shared experience. With training, we can support others.

The federal Medicaid program and Department of Veterans Affairs have recognized the value of peer specialists in helping others with mental health issues. Medicaid allows federal dollars to help pay for peer support specialists – but only in states with a process for standardizing training and certifying workers. Other than South Dakota, every state in the country has such a process – except California.

SB 803, introduced by state Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose, will set up this process in California. At a time when millions of Californians feel isolated and anxious, it will help us scale up the workforce of certified peer support specialists to address our deepening mental health crisis.

It’s time to recognize – legally, officially recognize – the unique and vital role that peers play. Gov. Newsom, can we count on you?

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