In 2004, California voters approved the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), which allows the Department of Public Health to hire employees who had personal experiences with mental health issues, either their own or those of a family member.
Funded by the state's millionaires' tax, this peer-based approach to service provision has helped to bridge some of the divide between health authorities and their clients. What's more striking is the growing confidence of the health department's new workforce, its "consumer" or "peer" staff.
For the last eight years, the peers have developed new skills, found niches that suite their strengths, received training and new work skills and facilitated support groups to bring in other members of their community, in order that they might benefit from the city's resources.
Ever since, MHSA staff have come up with new and innovative ideas for wellness and recovery for its programming. The latest? An optional lunchtime yoga class.
Last Friday concluded the first yoga pilot program. The six-week trial run began on May 4, at the behest of the CBHS consumer staff manager, Tracey Helton. She hoped the class might help reduce the high turnover and burn out rates among the peer staff by providing on-site self care and stress reduction through yoga.
"When people come to get mental health and substance abuse treatment, they're in dire straits," Helton says. "We have staff that have mental health issues and its challenging because they're dealing with other people's emotions."
Helton knows that it's hard for her staff not to take on their peers' problems, and she believes yoga teaches compassionate detachment, so that workers can learn to "witness pain but not be a part of it."
She says she's already observed results in the last six weeks, and that her staff are more focused, relaxed, and able to do their work. Half of the participants had never tried yoga before. Helton says the class has benefited peer staff because it allows them to "be part of society. It's offering them a new tool for stress reduction, building a sense of community, and teaching mindfulness."
The feedback has been good enough to extend the pilot program for another six-week run, which promises to bring a new sense of peace to our mental health peer employees.