June 9, 2023

Mental health, addiction, and the power of a peer

Shared experience helps young people in Oregon build confidence for their own recovery path.

At its core, peer support is about forming a relationship of trust with a young person — one that recognizes their value, even in their deepest pain.

Kids and young adults in Oregon and around the country have faced challenges over the last 3 years brought on by the pandemic.

Many struggle with anxiety, depression, social pressure, and uncertainty about their future. Some have turned to substance use and other addictions to cope.

Talking with someone who understands what they’re facing can make a real difference. That’s the unique and vital role Kaiser Permanente’s youth peer support specialists play for young members.

A more personal understanding

A peer support specialist has a personal understanding of living with and recovering from addiction and mental health issues. They use that knowledge to support and assist young people facing their own issues.

Through 1-on-1 support, in non-judgmental ways, they can help individuals discover and assess the problems causing them to seek comfort in their addiction and behaviors.

“A peer support specialist’s role extends beyond the clinical environment,” says Ashlee Whitehead, Regional Clinical Services manager in Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Addiction Medicine in the Northwest. “They focus on listening, building trust, and helping our youth recognize they have a voice and role in their recovery.”

At its core, peer support is about forming a relationship of trust with a young person — one that recognizes their value, even in their deepest pain. This allows a support specialist to draw on their own experiences to support a young person.

Confidence through lived experience

“We meet our youth right where they are — and walk alongside them,” says Cody Blackburn, peer support program manager for Mental Health and Addiction Associates of Oregon. “We share our own lived experience that may include addiction, trauma, or other mental health issues. They recognize the familiarity — our shared story — and realize that we can understand them in ways others may not.”

Kaiser Permanente originally partnered with MHAAO 2 years ago to provide peer support by phone for members who couldn’t see a specialist in person. The initial success has allowed the peer support services program to expand throughout the Northwest region. MHAAO now dedicates 21 peer support specialists to work directly with Kaiser Permanente members and mental health and addiction medicine teams.

Mentoring to reach goals

Peer support specialists undergo comprehensive training and Oregon state certification. Their role includes a wide range of activities to support a young person working through recovery. Kaiser Permanente’s peer support specialists also serve as mentors and help their youth peers set goals, connect to resources, and build connections to the community and others. They also encourage them to be their own advocate in recovery.

As someone whose gambling addiction and mental health challenges emerged as a teenager, Blackburn knows the road to recovery can be tough.

“Just knowing they have someone who believes in them, regardless of what they’ve done or what they are doing, can shift their thinking,” he said. “Even if they stumble, we have planted the seeds for recovery and built a support system that will be there for them.”