“It’s about trying to make sure everyone feels that they have a place in a community of people who are going to support them and work with them to be able to live the kind of life they want to live. That’s what this has all been about for me.” – Clay

Clay Peterson is the Peer Network Program Coordinator for Mid-Valley Behavioral Care Network. It’s his job to ensure the needs and voices of people receiving mental health and addiction services are heard, and to protect and promote mental health and recovery programs that provide Peer Support or other Peer Delivered Services.

Peer support encourages people who are facing mental health challenges to work with others who have similar experiences to strengthen paths to recovery. It’s a holistic approach that is changing the way we think about mental healthcare.

Clay talks about peer support this way: “I think we know intuitively that this is an effective way to support people, because it’s how we do it all the time: you go be part of someone’s life, you build that trust, you’re able to have a relationship. You understand where both people are coming from, you’re talking about your problems. It’s not like you’re sitting on a couch and talking to somebody who writes down what you said in a book. Instead, we’re working together, it’s like you’re going on a journey together.”

There’s not just one way to do peer support. Clay works with consumer run organizations (CROs), which are run by people who identify as having mental health or addiction challenges in their life; and traditional healthcare organizations that have decided to offer peer delivered services, by employing peer support specialists who lead by example, sharing their own recovery stories and challenges. The CROs include organizations like Project ABLE (A Better Life Experience), the Recovery Outreach Community Center (ROCC), and Dual Diagnosis Anonymous.

Traditional providers offering peer delivered services run the gamut from organizations like Marion County’s Community and Provider Services (CAPS), which oversees a network of peer supporters, to Bridgeway Recovery Services, who provide supports for people in addiction recovery, to Salem’s Psychiatric Crisis Center (PCC), which has a peer support specialist on staff.

“Peer support is unique in that it does not require a degree, advanced medical knowledge, or anything other than life experience,” Clay says. “It’s done by people who are paid and people who volunteer. It’s even done by people who don’t know what peer support is or that they’re doing it. It’s about sharing personal experiences to find each individual’s path to recovery. It can be as informal as a friendship based on mutuality with a neighbor, or can be formalized as a mentor mentee relationship in an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous. It can be a relationship built with CRO staff or other attendees, or a relationship that starts with a clinical referral. The fact that it’s so flexible is what makes it effective.”

Clay came to this work in part because of his own mental health experience. He didn’t always identify as a peer, but the more familiar he became with the peer movement, the more he saw cycles of depression and withdrawal recurring in his past. “Once I got involved…I would be talking to people and realize I identified with everything everyone was saying and recognized how lucky I was to have the supports to get through my things when they were crappy. I realized, ‘oh, of course people need to have a place to go, a community to be part of, and people you can rely on. Of course you need that when you’re going through crisis. What else would you rely on?’”

So that’s what motivates his work at Mid-Valley BCN: “It’s about trying to make sure everyone feels that they have a place in a community of people who are going to support them and work with them to be able to live the kind of life they want to live. That’s what this has all been about for me.”