Tonya identifies as a Black female with lived experience within the criminal justice system. Throughout her life, she's also experienced addiction and with mental illness. She's been clean for more than 9 years, working as a peer support specialist. Along the way, has also earned her bachelor's degree in social work.
Tonya is an avid advocate within her role as a peer support specialist and leads a peer group for people participating in Mental Health Court. For those who don't know, Mental Health Court is a specialized treatment court for people experiencing mental health issues who have a criminal conviction. The philosophy of this court is that people are not criminals, but make decisions from an untreated mental illness and/or addiction as contributing factor.
I sat down with Tonya to learn more about what she does.
What is the purpose of the group?
The purpose of the Peer to Peer group is to create community, provide a safe environment and social support with participants outside of the mental health court forum that is not treatment orientated.
What gap did you see needed to be filled?
The Mental Health Court peer support specialist and the court team realized that the participants were not engaging with each other or with outside resources that were not court ordered. We also noticed that participants struggled with interacting with individuals with similar life challenges and with service providers. The gap that needed to be filled was connection, support and development of social skills that seemed unaddressed in other capacities.
What do you do in these groups?
This particular group allows for presentations on information that is relevant and important for the peers. We also create an atmosphere of fun while learning new things which reiterates that being involved in recovery and being diagnosed with a mental illness is not who I am. It is what I have by definition. The group also gives peers the opportunity to share personal struggles, and successes in a safe environment that they may not be willing to share in a clinical setting. We also offer incentives for those that attend and provide lunch. This approach allows for those that are houseless to have a hot meal and also win a gift card to attend to any needs that they may have and helps those that are housed with no income the same benefit.
How are the participants responding to the group? Is it optional? Who is facilitating? And do you see a benefit to this style of facilitation?
A peer support specialist facilitates the group. However, the group is peer led: each participant has a voice in any decision that needs to be made concerning agenda, respect agreement, and any issues that may arise during our time together. The facilitator operates this group using intentional peer support core values and principles. The group is voluntary with no restrictions on attendance.
So far each participant has stated that they are enjoying the group and obtaining useful information that they can utilize and creating friendships amongst one another. The court staff and other outside service providers also see how peers are benefiting from the group and the change that is occurring within each individual.
As the facilitator I see the benefits of this group and how it is facilitated and that is due to the fact that the individuals that I work with are the expert of their lived experiences and they know what they need in order to overcome struggles and day to day stressors. Applying intentional peer support core values, with a strength based and trauma informed approach I believe has created an atmosphere of change and learning more so than a clinical setting.