Ellen Eldridge, GPB News
Georgia’s Peer Policy Collective grew out of the state’s Mental Health Parity Act. Now, its advocates are asking those with lived experience to participate in legislative conversations around mental health.
More than 2,000 mental health advocates, peers, key leaders, and legislators from across the state gathered in the last week at the Capitol asking to be involved with each legislative/gubernatorial commission, study group, or panel created to advise about mental health.
They also want lawmakers to bolster the state’s mental health workforce shortage by expanding the certified peer specialist (CPS) workforce and supporting a salary increase in parity with other service providers.
Peer-led recovery can save lives, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Kevin Tanner said. It’s where people who’ve navigated mental illness and addiction recovery help those still struggling.
DBHDD will continue to work with state agency partners, legislators, and the business, health care, faith, and education communities to strengthen the safety net, Tanner said.
That includes the bolstering the continuum of care for individuals in crisis and support for Georgians experiencing mental illness, specifically those who are most vulnerable in our system.
“However, we cannot do this alone,” Tanner said. “Collaboration in this field is critical. Your voice, the peer voice is the single most important voice in the process.”
Georgia was an early adopter of peer recovery programs and has been working in the space for 25 years.
In 1999, Georgia became the first state in the nation to receive Medicaid reimbursement for peer support services delivered by certified peer specialists.
Medicaid and mental health authorities in the state designed and planned a recovery movement that has grown into a formal peer support behavioral health intervention available in almost every state and territory in the U.S. and to many other countries.
Jen Banathy credits the program for helping her recover from her yearslong struggle with substance use disorder.
The Peer Support and Wellness Center in Decatur introduced Banathy to peer support for the first time, and she finally started to heal after years spent in isolation, too afraid and anxious to make friends.
What she said she needed was a different approach to accessing support, and having someone who lived through similar experiences and healed taught her to embrace her emotions.
“I, for the first time, experienced a powerful healing that results from building authentic relationships based on respect and mutuality,” she said.
Additionally, the peer support program helped Banathy embrace her spirituality, establish healthier lifestyle habits, and pursue her passions.
“After years of being lost and aimless, my life finally had meaning,” she said.
Having that peer support empowered Banathy to step outside of her comfort zone and ask, “‘What happened to me?’ rather than the all-too-familiar — and less healthy — question, ‘What is wrong with me?'”
She then more deeply explored her painful experiences with compassion and curiosity, rather than reliving feelings of shame and hopelessness.
“My experiences at the Peer Support and Wellness Center in Decatur bolstered my recovery and inspired me to become a certified peer specialist and return to work after having been on disability for years,” she said. “That was one of the proudest moments of my life: returning to work after being on disability for many, many years.”
Of course, people living with untreated mental health and substance use disorders can’t recover if they don’t survive their illness.
That’s why Jocelyn Wallace, a certified peer specialist and founder of the Never Alone Clubhouse in Douglas County, wants to make more available the lifesaving opioid overdose reversal medication, commonly known by the brand name Narcan.
She spoke to lawmakers and advocates in favor of Narcan distribution during Addiction Recovery and Awareness Day at the state Capitol.
“I wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for Narcan,” she said. “I myself have 21 recorded reversals from Narcan from an opioid overdose.”
Those overdoses all happened in the two years between 2015 and 2017. At that time, everyone she was involved with carried Narcan.
“Even then we knew that medication needed to be around if we were going to use,” she said.
In 2021, 44.3% of adults in Georgia reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to the DBHDD. Almost half of those people were not able to get needed counseling.
While an average of 20% of Americans experience serious mental illness, in Georgia, it’s 25%, Tanner said.
One out of four Georgians, or 2.7 million residents, experience mental illness each year, Tanner said, estimating 336,000 adults across the state have a serious mental illness.
“Here’s the good news,” Tanner said. “Just like any other medical condition, we know that when mental health issues are treated properly, we know that people can and they do live happy and fulfilling lives.”
Tanner said one of the things he is most excited about is Gov. Brian Kemp’s support for investment in competitive workforce salaries.
“We have to pay our providers a liveable wage,” Tanner said.
An initial $205 million to increase access and improve the quality of behavioral health and intellectual development disability services will be an historic investment that would do much to support the 4,500 men and women working for DBHDD, he said.
“I am also proud of the important policy work that we’re doing to transform the behavioral health care delivery system, not just under the Gold Dome, but also across communities across the entire state of Georgia,” he said. “This is a time of hope. This is a time of transition, and it’s a time for Georgians to embrace historic changes in the way that our state addresses mental health.”
This story comes to the Peachtree Gazette through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.