The Power of Peers
By Guest Blogger Caitlin Neumann, President of the Board of Directors, YOUTH POWER!
Being a teenager is hard when you’re trying to balance school, family, your social life, mental and physical health and plan for your future. So, what are you supposed to do when you’re trying to maintain all of that on top of struggling with a mental illness? Who do I ask for help? Where can I get answers? Why does nobody understand?
After being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, these are the questions I asked myself for years – a constant internal dialogue on repeat. At 15 years old, I felt alone, judged and hopeless.
When I was younger, I leaned on my friends for support, not thinking that confiding in them that I was struggling with depression would completely alter their perspective of me. In return, I lost every single one of my friends in high school because they didn’t want to deal with my mood swings. Being the generation of social media, they created an online Facebook page under a pseudonym, asking people around the school to join my hate group. I was a frequent flyer in the nurses’ office, having panic attacks during the day that resulted in a temperature high enough to have me sent home. Looking back at these events, those examples of stigma dictated my perspective of myself, mental illness and the world around me. It’s hard enough to beat the internal stigma I felt when I looked in the mirror, but then I was subjected to stigma within the community. If I wasn’t able to be myself with the friends I grew up with, then I didn’t think I could be myself with anyone; that’s the mindset I drilled into my head for several years.
If I was to stick to the status quo, it felt like I wasn’t allowed to disclose my diagnosis at all – as if mental illness has its own “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule. That feeling of isolation and loneliness became a feeling I got used to as I desperately grasped for someone to understand. When I turned on the TV, I saw girls looking serene as they cried themselves to sleep, only to be completely absolved of their depression within 40 minutes and chalking up their anxiety to being a personality quirk. Other TV shows projected the stigma that an inpatient psychiatric facility consisted of padded white walls. The media painted a picture of absolutes: people either romanticized it or deemed you “crazy.” I felt so much more misunderstood to the point that I wanted to die. All I wanted was someone to tell me, “I understand, Caitlin. It will get better.”
One day several years ago, I was in the midst of a six-month stay at a psychiatric facility and a group of young adults came in to present to us. They all identified as peers, explaining that they too were once receiving services from the mental health system, as well as having been hospitalized in the same facility. One by one they shared their stories, showing the trend of resiliency and recovery. That was the first day in a while that I had felt a spark inside me. Someone connected with me; someone understood what I meant when I told them my deepest fears. They told me that they had been there too. For the first time in years, I was inspired. If they could do it, I could do it too.
I started learning more and more about the concept of youth peer support, getting involved with local organizations and becoming a member of YOUTH POWER!, the New York State network of young people who have been labeled and are seeking change. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration identified peer support as one of the 10 fundamental components of recovery and, in retrospect, I’ve realized that the more access I had to peer support along the way, the more progress I made.
Youth peer support services are in big demand currently and it’s only growing. The outcomes speak for themselves. In addition to my presidency within the world of YOUTH POWER!, I work as a peer advocate with the Mental Health Association of Erie County, working within the community and at three facilities in their child and adolescent psychiatric units. Between running groups myself and watching other peer advocates work within their region, I can see the positive impact they leave on the youth they work with – and it’s a unique connection. Youth deserve more than the traditional way of receiving services – they are not simply a patient, a client or a consumer. Youth want someone to understand and to listen. Providing hope is vital, and youth deserve access to a peer that can walk their journey with them, someone they can relate to. It’s helping shift the conversation from “what’s wrong with you” to “what’s happened to you?”
When young people have access to people who have walked that same path, they feel understood and empowered. No questions feel off-limits when you’re talking to someone who’s your equal. It’s amazing to watch young people say “I don’t need you to help me; I need you to help me help myself.” The most common trend I see is watching young people struggle and come out even stronger with the urge to give back. Youth peer support is the epitome of a domino effect within the mental health system because of the positive outcomes shown individually and on a larger scale. It’s a community. Going beyond direct support and incorporating youth voice in the system of care is what makes services so successful, by transforming the mental health system to give young people the support they need with the respect and dignity that they deserve. That is what makes youth peer support indispensable. Young people are not their mental illness; they are dreamers, artists, students and athletes, and we will walk this journey of recovery together.
About the Guest Blogger
Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Caitlin is known statewide for her role as President of the Board of Directors of YOUTH POWER!, the NYS network of young people who have been labeled and are seeking change. Being diagnosed with a mental health condition at a young age, she has developed a lifelong mission working to decrease the stigma of mental health and to bring support and guidance to her peers in hopes to inspire hope and change. Caitlin has presented and spoken at various mental health awareness conferences and events statewide and internationally to help transform child serving systems for the future. She is also the Youth Peer Mentor at the Mental Health Association of Erie County.