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There aren’t too many job applications where checking the box for a criminal history or a mental illness or a history of addiction would give you an edge. But for peer-support specialists, it’s a decided advantage.
Valerie Bass, who has navigated homelessness, addiction, depression, and incarceration checked those boxes to become trained as a peer support specialist. Artie Tomlin did the same. And today, thanks to funding from Washtenaw County’s Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, Bass and Tomlin each support dozens of Washtenaw County residents who are contending with similar concerns.
Peer support specialists like Bass and Tomlin--two of six such specialists hired with millage funds--can relate to individuals with mental health concerns and co-occurring substance use disorders because they’ve been there. And because they’re no longer there--because they’ve been in recovery for years--they can inspire struggling individuals to emphasize self-care. As Artie Tomlin says, “Alcohol; I know that story. Living on the streets, I know that story. I’m done with it.”
Valerie Bass says she was in her mid-forties, struggling with depression after an abusive relationship, when she turned to drugs. She was the oldest of 10 children in a working class family from Detroit when her brother, a police officer, turned her in for drug use.
Bass says she spent almost four years in jail for possession and after she was released, she lived on the streets. She managed to get clean, and a Washtenaw County program for inmates with co-occuring mental health and substance use disorders helped her stay that way.
Today, Valerie Bass helps Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) case workers care for their clients, goes out with the WCCMH crisis team to respond to critical community needs, and works with Washtenaw County inmates--those with a history of mental health and substance use disorders--who are about to be released from the county jail.
The work with inmates begins, Bass says, a couple of months before they’re released when Bass and the mental health team discuss inmate needs, work with inmates and their family members to review and address those needs, and begin to help inmates get the support they require.
A lot of times, says Bass, clients “are like ‘Oh, I’m good.’ But we know they need assistance.”
That assistance comes in the form of job training and placement support; safe housing with supports for people in recovery; referrals to individual and group therapy programs; acquiring health insurance, bus passes, and medications; financial education to help individuals manage their bills; some clothing and food; and more.
Artie Tomlin, another millage-funded peer support specialist, does similar work with the assertive community treatment program for individuals with severe mental health diagnoses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“When I go out to see clients,” says Tomlin, “I do a wellness check, make sure they’re taking their medicine, and let them know I know where they are, where they’ve been, and it gets better.”
Some of Tomlin’s clients need healthy routines, more than anything. Getting up in the morning, brushing their teeth, making their bed, heading downstairs to eat, taking their medicine. He tries to explain what healthy habits like these can do for you in the long run.
Tomlin says he worked in a restaurant for about eight years before taking the leap of faith to become certified as a peer support specialist. Years later, he’s still learning about trauma, addiction, mental health disorders, and recovery from his colleagues at Washtenaw County Community Mental Health.
“Just being part of a team like this is huge,” he says.
But sometimes, Tomlin says, clients still don’t want to listen. “They make up their mind and there’s a block right there,” he says.
Tomlin comes in the door, pulls up a chair, and shares what he knows, putting his own spin on it and making it easier for them to relate to.
The job, Tomlin says, is way bigger than he thought it was--it can be stressful sometimes. But he’s happy to be a source of support.
“Washtenaw County is full of people with degrees and we tend to think we need to hire somebody with lots of letters after their name,” says Nancy Baum, health policy director at the Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT) and a renowned behavioral health expert. “But the evidence base has been building and what we’re learning is that peers really help their peers.”
Story by Erin Spanier