In this addition of Peer Support IRL, we connected with Carolyn Hall, an avid supporter of Colorado Mental Wellness Network. Carolyn is one of the pioneers of Peer Support in Colorado as she has over 20 years of experience in the field!

Can you tell us how you got involved in Peer Support? 

Well, I’ve been doing this work for two decades! It all started about 20 years ago, when my family was in turmoil. There were only two Peer Specialist trainings in the state and I took Nate Rockitter’s training because I was intrigued and I wanted to see if it could help me with my family situation. While I was not able to immediately transform my family dynamic, the reality is that the training helped me develop strong relationships with all my family members, even as it separated.

After training, how did you get involved in Peer Support Professionally?

When I went through training, I did not even think about getting hired or doing this professionally. I only began to consider it because my training supervisor told me they wanted to bring a PSS to Santa Fe House, and that he thought I would be a good fit for it. After interviewing, I ended up working there (3.5 hours a week) on a trial base. While at the Santa Fe House, a nurse (from Bridge House) heard me facilitate my group. The Bridge House then asked if I could do another 3.5 hours a week with them.

Back then (20 years ago) BHI (Behavioral Health Inc.) paid the wages of Peer Support Specialists, and wherever we were accepted to do work, we were on probation for 6 months. The understanding was that at any time the facility was not happy with what we were doing, they could ask us to leave at any time and we had to leave without question. So, it was a bit stressful, and it was always on a trial basis. Thankfully, no one was ever not happy with the work we were doing. Peer Specialist work was scarce at the time, but I am so happy for having the opportunities the facilities and centers had given me in doing this work.

I became supervisor after working a year as a Peer Specialist and I started supervising in the Aurora area first. I would talk to clinicians, centers, agencies, to make sure that when we did Peer Specialist trainings, everyone fit would have a place of employment on that 6-month bases. That was how we (Peer Support Specialists) were able to spread throughout and across Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas counties and the City of Aurora and this was the BHI area. We were scattered throughout the area in centers, drop-in centers, nursing homes, acute facilities, clubhouse, and transitional housing throughout these communities.

While we began to spread out, our goal was to work towards having Peer Specialists in the state hospital in helping people get back out in the community with resources and bridged care. Colorado is really unique here, because most states started in hospitals, and were wanting to work to get out in the community, and we were in the community working to get into the hospital and this made us an anomaly to other states. With some time and effort, we managed to do it, but the hospital was the hardest to break in to. Funding was always scarce for Peer Support workers but thanks to BHI we were believed in and they gave us the funding to grow.

What are you doing today?

Today I work at Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners as an employee and I work on the Colorado Support Line attached to the crisis center. Years ago, BHI was changing the culture in changing the people. I was managing and supervising the whole BHI area and program for some time, when I learned that RMCP was starting a support line and I was so excited to expand out, to support the whole state of Colorado because I was confined to just the BHI area.

When I heard RMCP was hiring, I was nervous and excited all at the same time. I was afraid I was overqualified, but I am so thankful that they hired me and gave me a chance so I could join their initiative in supporting the state. I have been with RMCP for over 6 years now. I also work a weekend job at CHARG Drop-in center as the assistant coordinator.

How has peer support made a difference in the lives of other folks you’ve worked with previously? (please exclude any specific names or specific examples)

In the beginning I remember how awkward I felt using the skills I had been taught while I was getting grounded in them. Sometimes people I worked with had issues that were so big I wanted to fix them. I had to learn that I can’t fix people, and even if I give them those tools and resources, they don’t always use them or follow through. I think all Peer Support Specialists struggle with this in the beginning of their career as I have learned in working with the Peer Specialists throughout time.

I had to learn to relax and trust that people know what is going to be most helpful for them. Empowerment comes in one form as options and mutually we would explore their options together. Sometimes the options are not always healthy choices, so we talk about the results in helping individuals to think of choices that will not cause harm. I have learned over the years that people can think for themselves and have an astonishing ability to problem solve.

Some of the coolest experiences I have had have also been the most challenging. The most challenging and best were when people were able to modify and change behaviors in themselves. I love to validate their work in the changes and hailing their successes and efforts has been so exciting for me. For example, when someone yells or curses at me, it is not productive, I reiterate how this is not helping them. I let them know I am here to support them and empathize with the emotions they are feeling and work to help them gain some control so they can figure out next steps. In the past when someone was abusive, I would let them know this is not helping them and share that maybe this is not the right time to figure things out and we can try again next time. Each time I meet with them, it is all new with no judgement. I do talk to them in learning what was going on at the time when a person calls back. Eventually the person will want to engage and will engage using a healthier behavior. Then we are able to move towards together. I continue to offer support and applaud their healthy engagement with me in encouraging this healthy behavioral change to continue.

I also listen to them and try to learn from Peers. Like when someone says it makes them mad because I offended them in the process of supporting them.  We mutually work together in learning what would be most helpful to them. Peers have been my greatest teachers and they help me to change my behaviors towards them as well. We work mutually in figuring out how we can move forward once everything is on the table and all has been discussed. We figure out how we can work on the relationship so we can be more respectful towards each other. It is beautiful seeing people working toward having healthier behaviors and it is a very mutual experience.

It’s very rewarding when I hear Peers tell me at times in reminding me of all the work we have done together over the years.

How has being a Peer Support Specialist impacted you and your life personally?

It helped me to be very present with my family. I was unmedicated for 40 years, so when I began treatment, I wanted my family so much to accept my diagnosis and except what I was learning about myself. Even though I felt relief in knowing there was a name to my madness I also had to go through my own grief period for normality. I had to face that my family will never understand my experience and I had to find acceptance with this. I think being a Peer Specialist has impacted how I meet people in the present moment including my family.

There were times where I really wasn’t connected with my kids and their emotions while they were growing up, and they remind me of how skewed my judgement was, (like the time I didn’t take my son to the amusement park and chose to go with the other children when I should have been home with him in his illness), so when I was well and in recovery, I bought tickets to make it up to him. I have worked hard at making amends with my children and grandchildren in being better towards them. My Peer Specialist skills have helped me to work towards being right minded with my family and the people I serve.

What would you tell someone who is interested in learning more about peer support? 

I tell people all the time about CMWN Peer Support Specialist Training because, I think one thing I do in this profession is work towards developing the next Peer Specialist. I let people know that Peer Specialist work is not for everyone. If they find this to be true, they will walk away with outstanding skills they can use throughout their life. Most times in working with individuals, I teach a skill in helping them to be the best they can be in their relationships and personal growth which in turn I work towards creating the next Peer Specialist. I think the same thing when I supervise. I have brought people up to be the next leads and supervisors in this profession over the years and this feels exceptionally good. I am not going to be here forever, so I believe in passing what I can on.

I also tell Peer Specialists that I have trained and worked with over the years that there will be awkwardness in the beginning, and this will be normal. I encourage Peer Specialists to relax, and build relationships to start, because when people are comfortable it is easier to gain the bigger picture and the more we understand, the easier it will be to give the best support possible.

Any other thoughts you want to share in closing?

Peer Support Specialist is a beautiful culture. I find the work I do very spiritual and it moves me. I have often heard people say, Peer Specialists are seen as Shaman. If I could pass on insight to other Peer Specialists from my years of experience, I would encourage Peer Specialists to remember that people always find their way, so please find patience with them on their journey. Try not to set expectations on the people you serve and honor where they are at in their recovery path.  

Peer Support IRL (in real life) – With Carolyn Hall