Washtenaw County specialists use past experience with mental health, substance use to help others

We talked with three peer support specialists, who use their own past experiences with mental health and substance abuse issues to help others going through similar ordeals in the present.
Content warning: This story contains descriptions of suicide and drug use.

As concerns about mental health and substance abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic continue to grow, peer support specialists play an important, often unseen, role in Washtenaw County's local health organizations.

Peer support specialists, also known as peer specialists, are individuals who use their own past experiences with mental health and substance abuse issues to help others going through similar ordeals in the present.

A number of Washtenaw County organizations, including Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH), University of Michigan Addiction Treatment Services, the Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs Health Care System, and Packard Health employ peer support specialists. 

We spoke to three such individuals, all certified under Michigan's Certified Peer Support Specialist training program, about their experiences as peer specialists and the journeys that led them there.

"I tell my story to give other people hope"

Valerie Bass has been a certified peer support specialist and recovery coach with WCCMH's CARES team for the past three years. She received her initial certification while she was working as a volunteer at Ypsilanti's 14B District Court as part of the county's Drug Treatment Court program.

Ten years ago, her personal history of depression and substance abuse had led her through a similar program with Ann Arbor's 15th District Sobriety Court

"I was going through a divorce and my life took a turn," Bass says. "It was pretty messy and I just kind of slipped into it. I had a severe mental breakdown and I was using drugs every day." 
Valerie Bass.
When a relative tried to bring her to Florida to get help, she wound up getting arrested for heroin possession and serving four years in prison. After getting out of prison and returning to Ann Arbor, where she continued using, Bass received contact information for the sobriety court.

"I don't know how I got the number or anything, but I made the phone call because I just wanted some help," she says. "They helped me get into a program, and they helped me again and again because I didn't get it right the first time."

Now, as part of her role with the CARES team, Bass regularly does outreach at the Washtenaw County Jail. She also facilitates group sessions, mans the CARES crisis hotline, and has even given talks to local public schools. 

"Wherever they need me is where I go," she laughs.

For Bass, the self-disclosure aspect of her role as a peer specialist has never been an issue.
Valerie Bass.
"I don't have a problem with telling my story, because I tell my story to give other people hope," she says. "There are some things that I will keep to myself, but with the things I talk about, I'm an open book. I don't mind that stuff being shared if it's going to help other people."

"Sometimes they just want to feel like you understand"

Cara Addy became a peer support specialist with the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System in 2013, as part of an effort by the Obama administration to create more peer support for veterans across the country. 

"It's kind of a newer push for the VA," Addy says. "New research was coming out that was showing how valuable these peer specialist positions were."

She compares the peer support specialist model to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Cara Addy.
"If you think about AA, you go in and you speak to other people who have similar experiences, similar backgrounds, and talk to other people who have been there, done that," she says. "You can figure out what's worked for them, what hasn't worked for them, and get help from them to try to help you move forward."

"Peer-to-peer is not a new idea," she adds. "But when you look at mental health, we have traditionally just gone to the experts." 

To someone dealing with mental health issues, and particularly to a veteran of the armed forces, it can feel like those experts are unable to understand or relate to their personal experiences. In 2002, when Addy returned home from her four-year service as an aviation electronics technician with the Navy, she experienced that feeling of isolation herself.

"Transitioning from military life to civilian life, it's kind of like a big drop-off," Addy says. "You're not given a job, you're not given money, you're not given a place to live. You just kind of have to figure it out. I was homeless. I lived in a tent. I had no place to go. I had no money."

Addy attempted suicide multiple times in the three years that she spent homeless. 

"I wish that there had been somebody there to guide me other than just a psychiatrist to just give me medicine," she says.

After receiving a crucial bipolar disorder diagnosis, Addy was able to find a greater sense of stability, which eventually led to housing, employment, and education. She briefly pursued a career as a police officer, but quickly found it was not what she had hoped. 

"I hated it," Addy says. "I was trying to help people, but only really getting them past the point of help." 

Instead, she successfully pursued a bachelor's degree in criminal justice before getting a clerical job at the Ann Arbor VA. 

"Once this job came up, I thought it was perfect," she says. "This was helping people at a place where it's not too late. … If I can show them that these are experiences and struggles that I had, then maybe they can learn from some of them."

Addy works with both groups and individuals within the VA system, helping veterans navigate everything from housing and transportation to relationship goals. Sometimes, she says, all she does is listen.

"Sometimes they just want to feel like you understand," Addy says. "And sometimes they just want to be human. A lot of times in mental health clinics, they don't feel like they're heard. They don't feel like they're treated like human beings. It's nice to just sometimes let them talk."

"This is the reward that everything in the last 13 years has gotten me to"

Artie Tomlin has been a peer support specialist with WCCMH's Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program for two years. 

He moved to WCCMH from Ann Arbor recovery nonprofit Home of New Vision, where he had previously received substance abuse treatment himself. 
Artie Tomlin.
"I've been fighting for a long time to get to where I am today," Tomlin says. "It's ironic that my disease of alcoholism got me to where I am today."

Tomlin grew up in the Danbury Green development in northeast Ypsilanti.

"Especially in the '80s, coming out of your door, people would be drinking and doing drugs," he says. "I thought that was normal behavior."

Tomlin began selling and using drugs when he was still a teenager. 

"I lost seven or eight friends to drugs," he says.

Those deaths, along with concern for his own children, were his biggest motivators in getting sober at 38 years old. Now 13 years sober at age 51, Tomlin says the personal connections he's made with those in peer-to-peer programs are crucial. He says many of his current clients grew up in the same area he did, leading to a mutual understanding of shared circumstances that can forge a powerful connection. He has witnessed the results as both a peer specialist and an AA sponsor.

"One of my sponsees that's from the same neighborhood I'm from didn't get it at first, but I just kept helping him every time he reached out," he says. "Every time he called, I would answer the phone even if it was 2:00 [a.m.] … Once he finally got it, it just clicked. That's what happens in the peer support program."

As part of the ACT team, Tomlin supports community members who often struggle with severe mental illness. Sometimes that might mean helping with the basics, like medication or self-care. Other times, it might mean answering a call in the middle of the night. 

Although the job can be tiring, Tomlin says it's not one-sided. One of his clients recently called to check in on him after he was in an accident.

"I was like, 'Wow,'" Tomlin says. "This is the reward that everything in the last 13 years has gotten me to. When we can take care of clients and we go out and visit them, give them their meds, make sure they're doing okay, and get them back to being stable, they can be productive and have empathy for another person."
Artie Tomlin.
Tomlin says he'd love to see more funding and publicity for both peer support specialist programs, and for ACT in particular.

"I think being in the program has given me everything I needed, but it's also showing me how to live life and share my life with other people," he says.

Sabine Bickford Brown is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at sabinebickfordbrown@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe except photo of Cara Addy courtesy of Cara Addy.