ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Recovery from drug and alcohol addiction often depends on sponsors or recovery coaches. Now peer support for people with serious mental illness has hit the mainstream. It's become more common in places like Texas, where mental health professionals are in short supply. KERA's Lauren Silverman reports.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: David Woodside has been living with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder his whole life. Not too long ago, he wound up in Dallas County Jail for the first time at the age of 57. He'd gotten upset and kicked his brother.
DAVID WOODSIDE: Well, nothing good happens in jail. They don't give you your medication. You know, I think I was down there, like, one or two days.
SILVERMAN: After his brothers, including the one he kicked, bailed him out, he enrolled in an anger management class at Metrocare, a nonprofit serving people with mental illness. At Metrocare, he also started visiting David Yarborough's office.
DAVID YARBOROUGH: What's up?
WOODSIDE: Hello, Dave.
YARBOROUGH: What's happening?
SILVERMAN: There's an American flag on the wall, a popcorn machine in the corner and tissues on his desk.
YARBOROUGH: So since you and your brother's altercation, how's all of that stuff going?
SILVERMAN: The two Davids have a lot in common. Both are fathers and worked as electricians. And both are on the same anti-psychotic drug. Yarborough is also coping with mental illness. He's not a volunteer. He's a full-time paid peer specialist. Woodside says for him, seeing Yarborough is better than seeing a psychiatrist.
WOODSIDE: Psychiatrists, they see you for about six or seven minutes. They don't know what's going on with you. And Dave's been through a lot of the things that I've been through, and vice versa.
SILVERMAN: In Texas, more than 900 people have gone through the peer counseling statewide certification training process since 2007. Jim Zahniser with The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute says the idea of peer services has been around for years, but it's only recently that research studies have shown how powerful it can be.
JIM ZAHNISER: One of the problems we've had in mental health is that we've learned how to keep people, quote, "stable" on their medications and get them out of the hospital. But recovery is about having a life in the community. And peer services are often oriented towards helping people with those things. How do you get your life back?
SILVERMAN: Studies show peer support workers keep people out of psychiatric hospitals. And Zahniser says when it comes to convincing people who are suspicious of doctors to seek help...
ZAHNISER: Peers are often the ones who can actually connect fastest with people and encourage them to get the treatment and the services they need.
SILVERMAN: For many years, peer specialists were volunteers. Now more than 35 states finance peer services through Medicaid. In places like Texas, where there's a severe shortage of mental health providers, peer specialists are bridging the gap. Joanne Spetz with the Institute of Health Policy Studies at the University of California San Francisco says peers play a critical role in mental health teams alongside doctors and social workers.
JOANNE SPETZ: When we first brought in peers we really had to spend a lot of time with the social workers explaining to them that we were not going to take their work and hand it off to a lower-skilled, cheaper person, that what the peer did was complimentary, but it was different.
SILVERMAN: Peer specialist David Yarborough was offered a job precisely because of his past struggle a decade ago with meth and mental illness. He talks openly with clients about it.
YARBOROUGH: I went from the outdoorsman - fishing, trimming trees, yard work, really enjoying all of that stuff - to - now I'm the guy that wants to lay in bed all the time and stare out the window.
SILVERMAN: Then came the suicidal thoughts.
YARBOROUGH: Probably about six months after that I gave my wife the key to my gun safe because I did not feel comfortable, you know, having access to my pistols.
SILVERMAN: Yarborough was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. After starting medication, he's had only one major bout of depression. When training to be a peer specialist, he learned how to work with others while keeping a close watch on his own mental health. Today he helps dozens of people manage their symptoms. His mantra?
YARBOROUGH: It's not how you fall. It's how you get back up. I really stuck to that concept a whole lot in my life.
SILVERMAN: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas.
SHAPIRO: That story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KERA and Kaiser Health News.
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