The National Alliance on Mental Illness in St. Tammany Parish is trying something a little new: training people who have mental illnesses to help people with similar problems.
Roxanne Skal is a Peer Support Specialist. She works with a variety of people, both in community support groups and at the Northlake Behavioral Health Center in Mandeville. A couple times a week, she drives from her office on one side of Northlake’s campus to a little brown brick house on the other side, where she leads a group for recovering alcoholics.
“Even when I go down for the meeting it’s like going to hang out with your friends. That’s pretty neat. I love what I do,” said Skal.
She has lived her whole life on the northshore, raising four kids in Mandeville and Abita Springs. But about ten years ago she went through a rough patch, she started drinking heavily after her divorce and ended up crashing her car and going to jail.
“I try to bring coffee and cookies and we just meet in here, then we talk about issues pertaining to, sort of, substance abuse — but it’s really about life. Because that’s what throws a lot of us into substance abuse is life, right? It’s open discussion; we bring up a topic and everybody talks on it.”
Peer support is just one of the services NAMI offers. They also staff a hotline and run community support groups.
Executive Director of NAMI-St.Tammany, Nick Richard, says Skal is one of the clients’ favorite staff, “They don’t just like her, they adore her, and not just in the sense that she’s nice. But she’s insightful, and she’s modest. Those are hard qualities to have come about. You’ve had to have gone through some things to have that kind of outlook.”
He says NAMI has helped train about 20 peer support specialists on the northshore. It’s a new training model being used all over the country. Support specialists learn through a workshop how to interact professionally with their clients, offer emotional support and manage crises — though they aren’t psychiatrists or trained social workers.
Richard said he has never been to a psychiatric hospital or received psychiatric treatment, so he does not feel like he is fully qualified to tell someone in a mental health crisis that he understands what they are going through.
“There’s no amount of reading, there’s no amount of hearing stories, none of that can really make me understand the feeling that an individual living with mental illness is going through,” said Richard.
Her personal experience might not be the same as all of her clients, but Skal said she can sympathize, and that earns their trust.
“I know what it feels like to feel like your base just fell out from under you, and you’re floundering to get your feet back on the ground. I know what it feels like to have people tell me to just ‘Buck up and do what you need to do,’” Skal said.
While Skal is listening to and helping her clients, in some ways, they help her, too, by making her painful experiences into valuable life lessons that she can use to help others.
As an employer, Richard likes to hire people with experience with substance abuse, involuntary hospitalization or the criminal justice system to work with clients in similar situations.
"I used to joke and say that if you don’t have some kind of minor arrest in your history I probably won’t hire you. Unfortunately, most of the agencies around here go ‘Oh no, you have an arrest, you can’t be hired." Well, I look at the circumstances. It’s easier for me to find really neat, really qualified people,” Richard explained.
Martha Benson NAMI Community Program Coordinator says stigma is one of the biggest barriers to recovering from drug and alcohol issues or mental illness.
“People think mental illness is the end of your life or the end of the road, but it’s not. Recovery is possible. I see it every day. I see people who have been able to overcome a major mental illness and go on with their lives and their experience, that lived experience, is so rich and valuable,” said Benson.
NAMI hopes to start a walk-in center staffed with peer counselors, and to get more of them employed in hospitals and social services locally and across the state.