A Surprising, Low-Cost Treatment for Psychiatric Problems

Dec 8, 2016

This week, a commission established to improve mental health care in Virginia met in Richmond to discuss plans for next month’s legislative session. They’ve vowed to reform the system, but the state budget is tight, and many things they’d like to do will cost more money.  One approach, however, costs very little, and participants say it saved their lives.  Sandy Hausman has details on how peer support works.

Cyndi Richardson and Rojo Perez lead a group discussion at On Our Own, a peer support center in Charlottesville.

Walk through the front door of this modest yellow house near downtown Charlottesville, and you might think a party was going on almost every day of the week.  This is On Our Own, a place run by and for people with mental illness.

"We don’t monitor people’s behavior.  We don’t take notes," says Executive Director Erin Tucker. "We’re not clinicians, and all of our services are free. "

Those services include classes in life skills and group discussions where members explore goals and achievements.

Group leaders Cyndi Richardson and Rojo Perez sit in a circle with a dozen people hoping to exercise more, eat less, find a job, make a doctor's appointment and find more time for themselves.

Members also work one-on-one with a so-called peer support specialist – someone who understands the shame, isolation, fear and despair that can accompany mental illness. That’s because they too were diagnosed with a serious psychiatric disorder and have recovered.  One of them, Sena Magill, explains that peer support takes a fundamentally different approach from what other mental health professionals do.

“In psychiatry, the boundaries have to be so strict.," she says. "Don’t touch.  Don’t get too close.  In peer support, it’s about being with that person and being that person’s equal.  It’s not about having superiority – going to an expert to get help.” 

Of course many newcomers are also seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, nurse or social worker, and often they’re taking medication, but Dr. Eugene Simopoulos, a psychiatrist at Western State Hospital, says there is clearly a role for peers who must complete more than 500 hours of  training and observation to be certified. 

“Peer support is immensely important," he says. "Individuals who have gone through mental health crisis are our biggest allies in terms of providing hope to patients.”

And this man, who asked that we call him Jeff,  says it saved his life after a long struggle with depression. 

“Peer support is a mysterious and wonderful thing, “ says a member who asked that we call him Jeff. "I'm living proof of that. Creigh Deeds was here, and someone said, 'This place saved my life,’ and I popped in and said, ‘Would everybody who’s here raise your hand if this saved your life?'   Everybody did,” he recalls.

This is the final story in our series on mental health. You can see all the stories here.

With a budget of about $400,000 a year in government funding, grants and donations, the center serves about 700 people a year, and Larry Almarode, who is on the board of  a peer-support center in Chesterfield called Friends for Recovery, says it can clearly save the state money in the long run.

“I could run a respite center for $450,000 a year," he says. "That’s about the cost of one or two hospital stays.”

What’s more, peer support may benefit two for the price of one.  “Not only is it helping the person they’re giving to," says Sena Magill. "It’s helping themselves. When your pain feels like there’s a positive aspect to it, when you can give back, that’s healing in itself.”

There are about a dozen peer support centers around the state, including On Our Own in Roanoke and We Care in Southwest Virginia.  Funding them is a  challenge, but next year government will provide peer specialists with the support they need – paying them through Medicaid for their part in helping others with mental illness to recover. 

For more information on Peer Support go to

http://vocalvirginia.org/peer-run-programs/