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Tia Burroughs Clayton, MSS
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Tyrone Quarterman, BA, MPH Candidate
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Georgia Kioukis, PhD
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The Peer Mental Health Advocate Program

Project LETS

The Peer Mental Health Advocate Program Logo

Program Website
Year:
2018
State:
Rhode Island
Winner Status:
Applicant
Program Type:
Training and Skill Building
Target Population:
Transition-Aged Youth
Setting:
School/College

Program Description

Our Peer Mental Health Advocate Program (PMHA) addresses the need for additional mental health supports for college students. We train college students with lived experience of mental illness, trauma, and disability to advocate for and with other students with mental illness by providing one-on-one, long-term peer support, and by helping struggling students access useful and culturally relevant resources. Our PMHAs also provide educational panels and workshops on campus, contributing to an ‘out’ network of mentally ill folks. PMHAs undergo a comprehensive, 8-week training program developed by Project LETS, and led by qualified student coordinators trained by their National Coordinator (utilizing core principles from Certified Peer Recovery Specialists, and Intentional Peer Support). Our training includes modules on: Listening and Crisis Intervention Skills; Privilege and Identity; Trauma-Informed Care; History of Peer Support; Hope and Empowerment; etc. Students have the ability to choose their PMHA (based on identity), meet regularly, and work to build support systems, identify goals and community resources. Often, PMHAs provide support during crisis moments, as well. Overall, this innovate program structure offers: 1) one-on-one peer counseling partnerships; 2) assistance with self-advocacy efforts; 3) individual crisis response services; 4) facilitation of healthy coping mechanisms; and 5) linkage to community resources.

Creativity

Many students are afraid to seek mental health care because universities may have confusing, or discriminatory policies– and students who do try to seek help often have a very hard time accessing care that is affordable, accessible, and culturally competent. Our PMHA program is crucial to changing this culture– there’s less of a power dynamic, it’s not supervised by the university, and it’s more approachable and relatable! As one student stated, “I was skeptical that anything could help me, but my PMHA cares for me with a kindness that fuels me to carry on.” The PMHA training is a combination of peer support and social justice education. While we train students to provide direct support, we also train them to understand topics like privilege and power to prepare for systems level-change! This model adapts to the community, and makes use of existing resources– students with mental illness.

Leadership

Our curriculum, training modules, and activities were developed by people with lived experience of mental illness, trauma, and disability. We believe (and know, through evidence-based research) that peer-based relationships can be as effective as professional treatment– and it is essential we look to people with lived experience to design programs and solutions that they feel are beneficial; in addition to guidance from experts who have created programs, such as Intentional Peer Support. In terms of implementation, we have relied on the drive and motivation of students who are directly affected by mental illness, trauma, and disability. These students, who are dissatisfied or who have been harmed by their mental health care services on campus, come to us advocating for a PMHA program to be launched. Our work has been shared by foundations and thought leaders, other organizations, as well as by treatment providers with university counseling service systems.

Sustainability

Universities often have a conflict-of-interest when supporting mentally ill students. For this reason, our team of directly affected individuals felt that in order to build a truly sustainable peer support program, it must be accountable to and supervised by an outside organization– Project LETS. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Project LETS supports people with mental illness through peer-led communities, advocacy efforts, and political change. Our organization is led and staffed solely by people with lived experience– and we are committed to the PMHA program as one of our core organizational programs. This year we have raised over $50,000 to support our efforts and programming for peer-led communities. In addition, we work to build close partnerships with stakeholders on each university campuses; and have also worked with folks from: The Mary Christie Foundation, PeaceLove Studios, Mental Health America, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and The Steve Fund.

Replicability

The Project LETS team has developed train-the-trainer materials for universities interested in building a PMHA program, including: facilitation guides, presentations, webinars, workbooks, etc. We are working with multiple other universities (including: Columbia University, Yale, Bergen Community College, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan) to build out PMHA programs. These chapters receive weekly support and guidance from their National Coordinator from the Project LETS organization (instead of university oversight); as well as support facilitating training. We are also working with community partners to expand the PMHA program beyond higher education. For many communities who experience being disproportionately surveilled (sex workers, queer and trans folks, Black and brown folks) using state-based systems of mental health care can be unsafe or trigger traumatic experience. Project LETS is committed to working with a variety of communities to adapt our program model to fit the needs and assets of each unique place.

Results/Outcomes

Project LETS piloted the PMHA program in 2015 at Brown University. Currently at Brown, over 100 students work with their PMHA, and 50+ have done so for greater than one year. This is often a longer relationship than students have with professional providers. This Spring, we are expanding to 10 universities. Over 60% of the students who utilize our program increase their help-seeking behaviors; and 50% of the students are students of color– which shows us that the PMHA model is addressing a need for marginalized communities, and is filling a gap where structurally competent forms of care are missing. As one peer stated, “Working with my PMHA kept me in college. As a first-gen, I didn’t have the ability to not remain in school and keep working. But my PMHA gave me the confidence and a support system to finally address my suicidal thoughts and ultimately saved my life!”