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Shifting the Norm to Disclosure

When I first started working in Human Services, I chose not to disclose my lived experience of mental health challenges. As an undergraduate psychology major newly hired at Vinfen through Northeastern University’s Co-Op program, I was following what I thought to be standard policy in my role as a Residential Counselor. I kept my personal struggles to myself, not out of a sense of guardedness or shame, but out of a misguided belief that sharing the fact that ‘I’ve been there’ would be inappropriate. That it would be a gross violation of boundaries; something that certainly had no place in the work of a mental health professional. I held with my policy of non-disclosure while working in a variety of settings, including several major hospitals where a culture of silence prevailed. Providing care to people on those units, many of whom were there against their will, felt awkward and hypocritical knowing that I too had been treated in different emergency departments for similar struggles.

Only after finishing my degree and rejoining Vinfen as an Outreach Worker did I learn about the role of a Peer Specialist. It was exciting and eye opening to hear that such a position existed, one in which I could work in the field I had grown to love and share my experiences with the people I serve. As a Peer Specialist, I could send the message that recovery is not only possible, it is realistic and attainable. I could provide a sense of hope.

When I first started working at Vinfen back in 2007, I never thought I would find myself where I am today – having accepted the position as a Director of Recovery Services. I am thrilled to be joining my colleague and Co-Director, Jodi Johnson, as we partner in guiding Vinfen’s peer workforce through the transition into the new Adult Community Clinical Services (ACCS) model. In this new model our outreach teams are welcoming triple the number of Peer Specialists we had previously. The message sent by this expansion is clear: Peer Support Services are more than a valued addendum to traditional treatment, they are a vital core component of our modern mental health system.

To fill these newly created positions, we turned to our existing workforce in the division. We found people willing to say, “I’ve been there too,” and transition from other positions into Peer Specialist roles. It is my hope that this trend of openness continues and that more human services workers, whether in peer roles or not, feel comfortable and free to share their own stories of struggle. So many in our field have either firsthand experience of struggles with mental health or have a friend or family member who has faced similar challenges. We are now undergoing a shift in culture away from silence and non-disclosure and toward a new norm of saying, “I know what this feels like.” It is a shift I  welcome fully.