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Peer mentors to boost local mental health services

Program relies on people who have personal experience with mental health problems to help clients navigate daily life.
Phil Wright

East Oregonian

Published on November 3, 2017 6:20PM

The front lines of mental health services in Umatilla County have 18 new sets of shoulders to lean on.

The group of locals hoping to use their own struggles to help others completed 40 hours of training the week of Oct. 23 to become behavioral health peer mentors. Dan Peterson, manager of the Oregon Washington Health Network, said the mentors have lived with mental problems and substance abuse and recovery, so they can related to what clients are experiencing.

“They build a sense of belonging,” he said. “They provide a lot of things a counselor wouldn’t provide.”

Peer mentors help clients with needs such as transportation and child care, he said, as well as offering encouragement for clients trying to make it through recovery.

Oregon Washington Health Network started three years ago and operates in Umatilla, Morrow and Union counties in Oregon and Walla Walla County, Washington. Peterson said the organization sought ways to bring more support for behavioral health and substance abuse services. The lack of mental health professionals in rural areas is a driving factor. He pointed out 80 percent of rural counties lack a practicing psychiatrist.

He said the network hit upon using peer mentors after drafting a plan in 2016 to improve behavioral health services in the four-county area.

According to the network, studies found peer recovery support programs provide multiple benefits, including lower hospitalization rates for adults with serious mental illnesses, lower relapse rates and increased treatment retention.

A federal grant covered the cost of the training, which took place at Blue Mountain Community College, Pendleton.

“We had 23 people sign up,” Peterson said. “All of that was word of mouth, which was really surprising to me.”

Five out of the 23 didn’t show, he said, but the 18 who did had 16 hours of online education and three days of classroom instruction. Daystar of Portland, the state’s approved trainer for substance abuse and addiction education, handled the instruction, which covered subjects from the role of peer mentors to crisis intervention to the rules and laws peers must follow.

Umatilla County Public Health covered the cost of state certifying the peers with the Addiction Counselor Certification Board of Oregon. Peterson said about nine of the class worked for Lifeways Inc. or other behavioral health providers, and the certification allows agencies to bill for services.

Peterson said the health network is looking at its next peer training, and 15 people already are interested. He also brought up the peer mentor program Thursday night at the Umatilla County behavior health community forum at BMCC, Pendleton.

The forum was the network’s first to hear locals share their experiences of mental health treatment in the county and weigh in on what needs to improve. Peterson said the health network plans to hold forums in three other counties as well. He moderated the event while a panel of local experts answered questions and discussed the needs they see.

The panel consisted of: Joyce Bailer, vice president for patient care services, St. Anthony Hospital, Pendleton; Steve Hardin, St. Anthony emergency department manager; Micaela Cathey, the local division administrator for Lifeways Inc.; Becky Greear, director of behavior health services for Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, Pendleton; and Amy Ashton-Williams, director of Umatilla County Social Services.

Nearly two dozen attended, including several audience members who credited local mental health services for helping them. Audience members and panelists, though, also sang common refrains.

The county needs more mental health services, they said, and more physicians willing to see people suffering from mental problems. That’s a place the peers can play a key roll in helping clients meet medical appointments, for example.

Several also said the county needs more behavioral health housing, ranging from facilities with staff on site to apartment-style living. Ashton-Williams pointed out it is difficult for someone to get treatment when they cannot meet a basic need.


Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.


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