How peer support specialists help Unity Center patients make mental health breakthroughs

August 11, 2020 • Jay Strauser was 17 when he joined the Air Force with a plan. He envisioned spending 20 years serving the country and then retiring with a military pension at age 37. Things didn’t go as expected.

Three years into his service, Strauser went to Desert Storm as a jet mechanic. He experienced clerical errors that affected his work, witnessed traumatic injuries and events, and ultimately, returned home a changed man.

“I was disillusioned,” said Strauser. “That’s when I started drinking a lot.”

Instead of spending 20 years serving the military, he spent two decades grappling with alcohol, drugs and severe depression. He was married but felt alone and was on the verge of suicide. He went to the VA hospital to deal with knee and shoulder pain, but ended up connecting with a nurse practitioner over a shared history of mental health issues.

“This nurse practitioner was at the height of the nursing profession, and by all appearances was what I would have called normal. When he opened up about his experiences, I realized I wasn’t alone for the first time. It changed the way I looked at myself and my future. It was powerful,” said Strauser.

“I realized I wasn’t alone for the first time. It changed the way I looked at myself and my future. It was powerful.”

– Jay Strauser

Strauser decided to get help again, and he found a psychiatrist and counselor he could trust. After turning his life around, he decided he wanted to do for others what the VA nurse practitioner did for him. Today, Strauser is the peer support lead at Unity Center for Behavioral Health, where he shares his experiences with patients who are in a mental or behavioral health crisis.

“It’s all about connecting. Everyone who comes through those doors has felt alone and that no one understands. My work is to show them we’re in this together, that they have support and people care,” said Strauser.

When patients walk into Unity Center in distress, they’re first triaged by a nurse and seen by a psychiatric physician. The clinicians are wearing scrubs, asking health questions to make a diagnosis and ensuring the patients are stabilized. When the peer support specialists like Strauser approach, they’re wearing regular clothes and connect with patients about life.

“The first thing we usually let them know is that we’ve been in the hospital ourselves. We talk about our own journey. It doesn’t take long to make a connection – minutes, maybe a few hours. Then they know we’re an ally, that we’ve walked a similar path.”

Unity Center partners with the nonprofit FolkTime to provide the peer support services. The peer support specialists also work one-on-one and in groups with patients in the in-patient units, as well as spend a day-and-a-half in the community, meeting up with patients who’ve been released. The goal is to show them places to get ongoing support.  

“They may have heard things that make them think they can’t work, can’t have children, have to take meds for the rest of their lives. They become hopeful again that their life can change. When they see what can be, it changes their perspective.”

Three years after Unity Center opened, two former emergency department patients have returned to the hospital, now as peer support specialists. One of them sent an email to Strauser letting him know that his intervention is what changed his life. Strauser says that’s the best sign this work matters.

“In other roles I worked in before Unity, I wore a mask all day and then went home and melted down. Now I get to be myself, share with people and make sure they know they’re not alone.”