Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peer support worker living proof of a system that works

By Leah Poulton, Marketing and Communications Office

Debbie Sesula’s experience with the mental health care system began almost two decades ago. But it wasn’t as a mental health care professional, as she is today. She’s also experienced the system from the other side – as someone struggling with a serious mental illness.

Her struggle began in her final year of university. The first course of treatment was a variety of medications. When the medications weren’t effective, she was hospitalized and given shock therapy. She spent the next five years in and out of hospitals and institutions, on various medications, but making very little progress. “It took away my sense of identify and all sense of hope,” says Sesula, 51.

It wasn’t until she began working with an occupational therapist, who introduced her to the recovery method of treatment – including psychosocial rehabilitation – that she finally had a breakthrough.

Psychosocial rehabilitation (PSR) is a system of supports and services for persons living with mental illness that focuses on helping them to live, work and function in their communities − and ultimately reintegrate into mainstream society. For Sesula, this meant she was finally able to take control of her illness and the effect it was having on her life. “A big thing was that I was into self-harm, and the occupational therapist helped me look at it as a behaviour instead of a symptom, which then gave me control over it.”

She was skeptical about the method at first, because it was so different from the traditional medical model of treatment she was used to. But eventually, the occupational therapist’s encouragement paid off, and Sesula began to see the benefits of the recovery-oriented approach and PSR techniques. “I learned through the different domains, like education, work, leisure and personal life, that I had control, that I had choices in my life and was responsible for my behaviours and choices. That was huge, because up until that point I didn’t feel that way. Before, there was no moving forward.”

Sesula joined an employment training program at a local clubhouse, where connecting with her peers was a key part of her recovery. She decided to pursue a career in peer support. With peer support, people with lived experience with mental illness are trained to support their peers in community mental health care settings. “I discovered I had a passion for peer support because of the difference that connection with my peers made in my recovery.”

After completing a peer support training program, she worked as a peer support worker, started running workshops for others who wanted to work in the field, and launched the first peer support program in the Fraser South Health region.

Today, she’s the program coordinator for 55 peer support workers in Vancouver and North Vancouver. She also trains close to 35 people every year to become peer support workers. She says PSR techniques are key in their day-to-day work. “PSR and the recovery model are about giving people choice. It’s about giving them autonomy and freedom in what they want to do with their lives. It’s about connecting with their strengths and discovering what their hopes, wishes and dreams are and then being there to support them on their personal journey of recovery.”

Sesula says she’s seen a major shift in mental health care over the last decade. Services are moving into the communities where people with mental illness are living. Hospital units are becoming rehab focused, with new employees being trained in PSR techniques.

This shift has created a need for people who are skilled and qualified in PSR techniques - a void Douglas College hopes to fill with the new Post-Degree Diploma in Psychosocial Rehabilitation. It’s the first designation of its kind in Western Canada. “It’s now recognized that meeting these needs, like employment and housing, is key to recovery and successful community living for those with mental illness,” says Program Coordinator Dr. John Higenbottam.

Similar programs are offered in Ontario, but the program at Douglas has one particular advantage. As part of the program, students will prepare to write the Certified Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioners (CPRP) exam, which is recognized throughout Canada and the US.

Designed in particular for those already working in the field, the program aims to equip mental health care professionals with the skills needed to practice PSR techniques in community settings.

As for Sesula, she’s optimistic about PSR and its strengths-based approach, and the effects they’re having on the mental health system. “Before, there was no voice for people with mental illness. Now it’s like if you don’t have someone on your team or committee with lived experience, you should be asking yourself why.

“It’s starting to trickle down from above – and that’s encouraging to see.”
For more information about the Post-Degree Diploma in Psychosocial Rehabilitation, see douglascollege.ca/psr.