Lys Skelly has a lot of things she’s proud of. She has degrees in religious education and in paralegal studies. She was Fairbanks Waitress of the Year in 2012. She recently got married and bought land to build a house. She runs four different recovery groups, mentors and volunteers. Skelly is a superhero, and she has mental health issues.
“All right, I’m bipolar, but I rock it,” Skelly said, laughing. “I’m cool with that. I have a lot to give. I have a lot to give, and I don’t let my mental health issues define me.”
But if you had met her about three years ago, before she started working with a peer mentor, you wouldn’t have seen all that she has to offer.
“I was living in between a broken-down trailer and an abandoned car at the end of the driveway,” she said.
Peer support specialists use their lived experiences with mental health conditions or substance use to help guide others who are dealing with the same issues. States and organizations have offered peer support certifications for decades. Alaska began certifying them earlier this year.
Skelly met her first peer mentor when, in the summer of 2019, she faced going back to prison for a felony DUI or going to the Fairbanks Wellness Court. After 13 years of sobriety, she had started drinking again, then lost her job and her housing. She described a long cascade of problems, from traumatic brain injuries to cancer. All of that was compounded by ignoring her mental health issues. Someone from the Wellness Court introduced her to an organization called The Bridge, where she learned about peers. That new connection changed everything.
“When you are in the midst of pain, when you are in the midst of loneliness, in the midst of shatteredness, only somebody who has been in that can you trust with your pain and your shatteredness,” she said. “It’s hard to trust your pain to somebody who doesn’t understand that pain.”
Skelly’s mentor at The Bridge helped her connect to a recovery house, to mental health supports and to other community members.
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The Bridge’s peer support program is one of many across the state and the world. The peer support movement began in earnest in the 1970s, and there are multiple international, national and individual state-level certification programs.
In Alaska, peers support everyone from youth to adults who are dealing with houselessness, substance misuse, the justice system and beyond. They don’t take the place of mental health clinicians, but they use their lived experiences to help people navigate complicated systems and support them through challenges.
The state’s Division of Behavioral Health began issuing certifications to peer support specialists in January. So far they’ve certified 43 people, including 12 Indigenous traditional peer support specialists. Certification allows organizations to bill Medicaid for the services the specialists provide and ensures that peers receive consistent training. It also validates the skills that peers possess, said people who worked on the certification program.
Alaska is one of the last states to develop its own certification for peers. It took about three years. The division worked with community members, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and the Alaska Commission for Behavioral Health Certification to develop the process using federally recognized best practices.
Many research studies and controlled trials show that peer support workers are effective. They help others have better self-esteem and self-worth, engage more in self-care, use fewer substances and have fewer psychotic episodes.
“We’re here to normalize all the chaos that comes with recovery,” said peer support trainer Jenifer Galvin. “To humanize the experience of being slightly broken.”
Galvin works at Alaska Behavioral Health in Anchorage and teaches the state’s first 40-hour peer support certification training class, which is currently available for free.
During the training, Galvin teaches about setting healthy boundaries, how to help people process having a diagnosis and how to have conversations around using different coping skills. They go into legal issues and ethics, too. The peers model recovery and offer support, but they don’t tell people what to do, she said.
“Think about how many people coming into recovery have not had control in their situations with the law, dealing with in-patient [treatment], dealing with X, Y, and Z,” she said. “You give them that control back, and you’re like, ‘Nope, this isn’t my job. My job is to be next to you. My job is to support you, but you get to call the shots. You are in control of your journey.’”
Training and certifying peer support specialists can also solve larger problems within the mental health treatment system, such as workforce shortages.
“Peer support specialists are a good way to tackle the workforce issue,” said Eric Boyer, a program officer at the Mental Health Trust who helped develop the certification program. “It enables another portion of the population to support beneficiaries.”
Ruth Shim, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, Davis, said peer support specialists can help build a truly inclusive mental health system because peers reflect the demographics of the population they are serving. However, involving peers is not enough to solve all of the systemic racism and prejudice within psychiatry. She said the country still needs more psychiatrists of color and psychiatrists from marginalized backgrounds as well.
For Skelly, the peer support specialists at The Bridge made her realize that people believed in her and that a hopeful future was possible. And now she’s a peer mentor herself. She said she knows she still has problems, but they aren’t barriers.
“I got so much hope,” she said. “If you ain’t got enough today, I got some for you.”
Skelly said that thanks to her peers at The Bridge, she has hope to spare and helping others gives her even more.
This story is part of an ongoing solutions journalism project at Alaska Public Media about destigmatizing mental health. The project is funded by the Alaska Mental Health Trust.