Originally created 05/27/05

Peer counseling program grows



Ken Whiddon remembers grinding up the glass and filling the ice cube trays with it. He picked out bridges he might drive off and dreamed of putting a gun to his head.

"The primary solution that I came up with to the pain and suffering in my life was suicide," he told a conference in Augusta on Thursday. But when his sister committed suicide, he recognized his problem and sought treatment, which eventually led to serving as a peer counselor to others with mental illness.

Georgia is home to a unique system of training and certification of peer counselors, and on Thursday, the Medical College of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Human Resources announced that they had formed a partnership to evaluate the program and to develop a curriculum for medical students and residents that will include peer counseling.

It is that approach, probably the only one of its kind in the country, that attracted Kathryn Power, the director of the federal Center for Mental Health Services in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"And that is what is unique about this training ... it is opening the eyes of the residents to those other aspects, not just the clinical/medical piece but the piece about community and the piece about hope that I think is really important," Ms. Power said. "Clearly, one of the things that we see at the national level is ... that work-force development of the future behavioral health care team should include this kind of collaboration."

Peer support is already being discussed in other states and other countries, said Thom Bornemann, the director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program.

"This is a movement," he said. "It's an innovation."

And it is the focus on recovery instead of dependency that is transforming mental health care in general, Ms. Power said.

"This class of diseases should be no different than any other class of diseases," she said.

Mr. Whiddon said he found it hard after years of being on disability to break away from that, until he found the courage to go back to college and serve as a peer counselor to others, sharing his story with them.

"I saw hope in their eyes," he said. "It was literally an awakening."

He now runs an employment agency that earns $6 million a year.

"I stand here as proof that recovery is possible," he said.

Then he left to a standing ovation.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

About the program

Georgia pioneered the peer support specialist program in 2000, which certifies mental health consumers to become part of the treatment system. South Carolina, Arizona and Hawaii are among the states that have since adopted the concept, according to the Georgia Department of Human Resources. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is promoting its use nationwide, according to the agency. In March, Georgia had 246 peer specialists serving 2,500 clients.