Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System
New VA Peer Support Program Making Positive Impact
In 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order to improve access to mental health care for Veterans and increase VA mental health staffing. Among several requirements, the President called for VA to hire 800 peer support specialists at VA hospitals and outpatient clinics nationwide.
In 2013, the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center (JCMVAMC) hired and trained five peer support specialists to work in Behavioral Medicine Service. Each “peer” is a Veteran who has recovered from a mental illness and now serves as a role model for other Veterans undergoing mental health treatment.
Dr. Alyssa Rippy, a psychologist in Behavioral Medicine Service, said research has shown that peer counselors can make a positive impact on a patient’s mental health recovery.
“The peer support specialist can say to the Veteran, ‘I know what you’re going through,’” said Rippy. “They can explain how they got better and encourage them through the recovery process. I think it’s a wonderful program and it’s been overwhelmingly successful.”
Army Veteran Charles Smiles, who struggled with alcohol during his military career, was the first peer hired by JCMVAMC last year and is able to relate to Veterans through his own recovery success story.
“I had a problem with alcohol and I had to go through therapy,” said Smiles, who retired from the Army after 20 years of service. “It almost destroyed my career in the military. I had a real good counselor and she stuck with me.”
Today, he mentors Veterans in JCMVAMC’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC), an outpatient treatment program that provides mental health services for Veterans suffering from a severe and persistent mental illness.
“I can inspire them to do well and talk to them and set an example for them,” said Smiles. “They can follow my lead like a big brother.”
Veterans in the program attend PRRC five days a week and receive individual and group therapy, attend classes in cooking, computer and finance, exercise at The Center for Individuals With Physical Challenges twice a week and attend a community outing every Friday.
“The majority of the Veterans (in PRRC) have been hospitalized several times,” said Rippy. “They’re really in need of a more intensive treatment than just coming in once a month or once every couple of weeks. For them, mental illness is severe almost to the point where they weren’t leaving the house. They weren’t taking care of themselves. They weren’t cooking for themselves.”
For Veterans who need transportation, Smiles and other peers pick them up and drive them home each day. He also attends each group session with the Veterans, provides one-on-one counseling and leads a group Illness Management Recovery class.
With each Veteran, he stresses the need for perseverance.
“You have to have confidence in yourself,” said Smiles. “You’re going to fall off the road sometime and that makes you learn from your mistakes. You’re always going to have things that can knock you off. You have to have the courage to get back on and stay on the road.”
Army Veteran Phillip Duncan, who receives treatment through PRRC for depression, said he enjoys having Smiles as a mentor.
“I look at Charles like a brother,” said Duncan. “He doesn’t talk at you. He talks with you.”
Dr. Rippy said Smiles has made a positive difference for his fellow Veterans.
“I don’t think we could have the PRRC without him,” she said. “Charles has done a wonderful and amazing job. He’s really there to support the Veterans all day.”