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empowering the black community by promoting mental health
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Journal

A Peer Specialist's Perspective on Coordinated Specialty Care for First Episode Psychosis

Jacquese Armstrong, Survivor Columnist

As part of our efforts to amplify the voices of people directly affected by mental illness and highlight positive work being done to treat illness and promote recovery, our Survivor Columnist spoke with Peer Specialist Michael Loftin about his work with patients in the Coordinated Specialty Care program at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care

“Knowing that you made a difference is huge, but the key is making the person know they’re doing it themselves,” Peer Specialist at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care Michael Loftin says. He says the people that come into this program just want to get back to the everyday business of living. They come at a time when they have not yet been indoctrinated by the psychiatric service world, Loftin explained. Perhaps, no one has told them supposed parameters surrounding psychotic episodes. 

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He recognizes the opportunity to provide hope and leverages it. Loftin said that he enjoys planting seeds even though he may not see them grow.

Participants come to the program up to two years after their first episode. Peer specialists like Loftin go out into the field and meet people where they live, at their activities or anywhere they feel comfortable. One peer took a train to Philadelphia with a person in the program because they were going back to school there. Another time, a peer was interested in losing weight because they perceived it would help their thoughts and attitudes about themselves. Loftin said that he centered on nutrition and even went to their house and fixed a nutritious low calorie breakfast and downloaded videos about nutrition. He doesn’t believe other programs would go above and beyond to accommodate goals in this manner.

When asked about his own recovery, Loftin admits, “I can get the monkey off my back, but the circus may never leave town.” Addiction was the monkey he got off his back, but the resulting mental health problems like depression and delusional thinking, are still a challenge sometimes. He feels strongly that peers—people who have experienced the challenges and successes of mental illness firsthand—have to be willing to tell the story. And he is more than willing. “I like that all the things I perceived as mistakes become lessons,” he said. He uses these lessons as tools to connect with people that come to the program because he never wants anyone to feel alone. Using his own experiences as a guide, he loves to challenge a person who shares intrusive thoughts that bother them. He tries to assist their recovery by helping them cast doubt on their thoughts so that over time they, too, will learn that thoughts that feel true may not be true.

His advice for someone beginning their recovery journey? “It’s gonna be a fight. Put the gloves on, lace them up and be ready to fight.” Education also helps. He adds that the more you know about your opponent, the better you can fight.

In the program’s short tenure, seven months, Loftin said he’s had many success stories. One story dealt with a person who was agoraphobic and rarely went out of the house. Just two weeks ago, the person ventured to New York City for a gelato making class…alone. The first time this same person went with Loftin to the gym, they cried to their family before going, not knowing if they could endure being out. This person graduated to going to the gym three times a week by themselves. “We set these goals together”, Loftin said.

Regarding stigma in the black community, Loftin believes that black males perceive mental health challenges as weakness and are beset by posturing to make a show of power. This type of stigma is not helpful and is problematic for black men seeking help. He often asks these men if it’s working for them to deal with their mental illness without help and what it will take for them to get the help they need. Reminding them that everyone needs help at some point and that it’s a sign of strength to do so is all part of what he does to help people like him recover and live their best lives.

Chandra C.