Guest Opinion: Innovation can help with mental health needs

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The Washington State Supreme Court ruled last August that the practice of detaining people with mental health issues in hospital emergency rooms was illegal. Gov. Jay Inslee then authorized up to $30 million to address the problem and he is seeking an additional $37 million in the state’s next budget to increase capacity to meet the demand.

As a result, there are an additional 160 beds at a variety of evaluation and treatment centers statewide, which is a good start. In Pierce County, our providers added 32 beds, bringing the total to 64. It’s critical to have a system in place to immediately accommodate those in crisis and get them the help they need.

But there is more to the story than the additional facilities. Since 2009, Pierce County has been developing a staff of certified peer counselors. These are individuals who have experienced mental illness and know firsthand the path to recovery and resiliency. This program provides them with an opportunity for employment, working in a variety of settings including not only the evaluation and treatment centers, but also community mental health agencies, hospital emergency departments and the county jail. They engage with individuals at critical junctures, drawing on their own experience to inspire hope, and link those in need to treatment services, support networks and other community mental health resources.

Certified peer counselors are a vital component of care for programs operated by Optum, the organization that manages Pierce County’s community mental health system. Optum’s Recovery and Resiliency program has provided certified peer counseling training to 474 individuals, and has employed 162 certified peer counselors across the Pierce County system of mental health care.

Certified peer counselor training is open to anyone who self-identifies as a person who has received mental health services and is maintaining their recovery. They can submit an application, then complete 40 hours of training and pass the state of Washington’s peer counselor certification test. Once certified, a peer counselor can apply for open positions.

When an individual is dealing with mental health issues and reaches out for support, meeting a person who knows the journey firsthand can create an immediate connection. The counselors are uniquely qualified to engage with those in need and build bridges to other caring professionals and available community resources.

Well-trained peer counselors are dedicated and committed to their work. They gain a great deal of satisfaction  from promoting and modeling personal empowerment, healthy relationships, and a sense of meaning and purpose — all while maintaining their own recovery.

How do we know peer counseling works? By helping participants successfully transition back to community life, Optum’s program has contributed to a 31.9 percent reduction in hospitalizations and a 32.1 percent reduction in the number of 30-day inpatient psychiatric re-admissions. These outcomes point to an increased number of individuals who are on a path to recovery and getting the treatment they need.

Certified peer counselors provide tangible hope, empowerment, and inspiration to those seeking recovery.  They remind us to see those with mental health conditions as people with goals and aspirations, capable of living fulfilling and happy lives. More than anyone, peers provide living proof that recovery is possible. It is critical we have the facilities to accommodate those in need in the most humane way possible, but it is also important to have the most understanding person there to greet them.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Cheri Dolezal

Cheri Dolezal

Cheri Dolezal is executive director of Optum Pierce Regional Support Network, which manages Pierce County’s publicly funded mental health programs.