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Disabilities Beat: What is peer-led mental healthcare?

A living room with grey walls and wood floors. There are black leather couches with throw pillows and a grey accent chair. There are dark colored end tables with lamps, as well as a movable table, and console under a TV mounted on the right wall. The TV has an image of a sunset on it. On the back wall is a window with blinds.
Courtesy Kevin Smith
Every Wednesday, hear 7-8 minute Disabilities Beat reports on WBFO during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
The WBFO Disabilities Beat is funded in part by the Peter & Elizabeth Tower Foundation.

According to Mental Health America, as of 2022, 19.52 percent of New Yorkers live with a mental health condition, but 58.30 percent didn’t receive any treatment.

On this episode of the Disabilities Beat, Emyle Watkins speaks with Kevin Smith, the director of Mental Health Peer Connection, about how peer-led services are helping to bridge a treatment gap. We also learn about their Renewal Center, which offers a peer-led alternative to a psychiatric emergency room.

A note, we do discuss mental health emergencies in this story. If you are currently dealing with a mental health crisis, you’re not alone, and immediate support is available by calling 988 or texting SAVE to 741741.

PLAIN LANGUAGE DESCRIPTION: This episode talks about where people go for help when they have a mental health crisis. You will hear from Kevin Smith, who runs a local mental health organization, about his personal story of his mental health. You will learn about peer-led services, where people who have been through treatment for their mental health now help other people who are going through a mental health crisis. This episode does talk about difficult mental health experiences, and if you are going through a hard time, you can call 988 or text SAVE to 741741 to get support.


The Renewal Center

Address: Kirsten A. Vincent Respite & Recovery Center, 111 Maple St., Buffalo, NY 14204

Phone: 716-245-4200

Open: 12:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. every day

Free, transportation available, walk-ins welcomed, 18 and up

Mental Health Peer Connection

Address: 3108 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14214

Phone: 716-836-0822

Website: https://wnyil.org/Mental-Health-PEER-Connection


Emyle Watkins: Hi, I'm Emyle Watkins, and this is the WBFO Disabilities Beat. This week I'm joined by the director of Mental Health Peer Connection, Kevin Smith, to talk about the value of peer-led mental health services and a local center that provides an alternative to a psychiatric emergency room. We do discuss mental health emergencies in this story. If you are currently dealing with a mental health crisis, you are not alone, and immediate support is available by calling 988 or texting save, S-A-V-E, to 741741.

Emyle Watkins: Hi Kevin, thanks for joining me on WBFO.

Kevin Smith: Thank you for having me.

Emyle Watkins: To start, I'd love to have you share a little bit about what you do at Mental Health Peer Connection.

Kevin Smith: We are an agency that provides behavioral health services for individuals that's experiencing anything that falls within that realm of behavioral health, including mental health and substance use disorders. But the unique thing about Mental Health Peer Connection is we're an agency that's staffed by individuals with the lived experience. So all of us have that story to tell. At some point in our life, we were affected by either mental health or behavioral health, and today we're far enough removed from our story where we hopefully can offer that assistance to wellness for other folks.

Emyle Watkins: And I know one of the unique programs that Mental Health Peer Connection has is an alternative to CPEP, or at least that's how it's been described to me. And for people who don't know, CPEP is a psychiatric emergency room for people who are going through a crisis. So tell me a little bit about that program that offers something other than CPEP for people going through crisis.

Kevin Smith: Yes, all mental illnesses are different, but specifically when someone is having a psychiatric episode, the emergency room or just being in an environment where there's just so many things going on affecting, there's sensory and everything else related to that, it doesn't make things better. So we thought we'd create an environment where they can still get their needs met. But a calm environment where there's some one-on-one. If there's a situation where we can't provide the services that are necessary for that individual, that's where the registered nurse come in. And of course, we would try to help that person get some level of service that will be more specific to what they need in the moment.

But more importantly, our Renewal Center, it's actually set up like a living room. So it looks like your average living room, there's a couple of sofas, loveseat, there's a fireplace and a television. We try to play calming things on that television and have that peer support specialist just engage that individual to see what it is that we can do to help them in the moment to maybe develop some wellness tools to help keep them out of the emergency room.

A small room with grey walls, wood floors and a rug. There is a grey couch and arm chair with throw pillows. There are two side tables with lamps on either side of the couch and a painting on the wall above the couch. Across the room from the couch there is a TV mounted on the wall.
Courtesy Kevin Smith
Another smaller living room within the Renewal Center.

And one of the big things about that is when individuals are having difficulty in the moment and they visit, say, the ECMC [Erie County Medical Center] emergency room in hopes to getting help in CPEP, most people don't get admitted. We created that specifically for those individuals as well, not just for the people who are afraid to go to those places because they feel like their rights are going to be violated in some way or they're not going to be able to get the help that they need. So we created a space where people can come and get the help for a crisis as they define it.

Emyle Watkins: At the core of this is that peer support model. Why is peer support so important and how can more programs benefit by being peer-led?

Kevin Smith: I think it speaks to that authenticity, not just how you help me, but here is someone in front of me that can honestly say they've been in some of the circumstances and the situations that I've been in, and they were able to overcome it. They were able to get to a place where they were healthy and well enough to relay that message, those skills, to someone else. And that is something that people gravitate to. I think that gives people that hope, even if it's just a pin prick. And when people see that spark of life or light or they get that hope, that's something that'll keep them coming back.

And I remember that feeling early in my own recovery the first time I walked into a room and sat down with a peer support specialist. I had been in many situations before where I was getting the clinical services or I was going to organizations to get the clinical help, and nobody ever asked me what it was that I wanted to work on. That was different. And when I was asked that for the first time, I didn't know how to respond because it wasn't what I was used to, but it was something that I wanted to know more about. It allowed me to really think internally not about the thing that actually kept me sick, but what I thought I needed to get better.

Emyle Watkins: Thank you for sharing that. And I hope you don't mind me asking, was there a peer in your own personal journey that really stuck out to you or made a huge difference for you?

Kevin Smith: I, actually, even though today I'm the director of Mental Health Peer Connection, I can honestly say I first walked through the doors of Western New York Independent Living Center back in 2003, and when I walked into that door, I'm sorry, I'm getting a little emotional here when I talk about this.

Emyle Watkins: Take your time.

Kevin Smith: When I first encountered this organization, I was sent there because I needed services, and that is when I was introduced to peer support. And literally it was transformational in my life because the things that kept me sick, the things that I was ashamed of, the things that I wanted to hide, the things that I didn't want anybody to know about, here was an organization where not only there was a lot of other people that shared some of the same stuff with me, but these were people that were in the community, they were respected, they were tax paying citizens, and I needed that. I needed that. It kept me coming back. It changed the way I thought about my own stuff. And I can remember years of sitting and thinking about not just what I was going through and asking why me and the tears of the shame and the resentment, but being introduced to that and that first time, I guess, having those same tears, but there was no shame related to it.

Emyle Watkins: One final question. If you had a chance to say one thing to a person experiencing a crisis or heightened mental health symptoms or maybe what you even went through, right now, what would you want to say to them?

Kevin Smith: I would say, and I know sometimes it's the toughest thing to do when you feel like what you're going through, it's only you and there's no hope for you, and you've tried so many things, some that have been forced upon you and other things that when you've had the courage to reach out to get that assistance, it didn't work out. I'm here to say, keep trying because one thing I know about recovery, it's different for everybody. There is no straight line to recovery.

Emyle Watkins: Thank you so much, Kevin. I really appreciate you coming on today and sharing a bit of your own personal experience too.

Kevin Smith: Thank you for having me.

Emyle Watkins: We have both the phone number for the Renewal Center and Mental Health Peer Connection's other services, as well as the transcript of this interview on our website at wbfo.org. I'm Emyle Watkins. Thanks for listening.

The Renewal Center, a yellow paneled building, is pictured. It has one level and a triangular shaped roof. It stretches across the picture. The sky is overcast and there is snow on the ground. Footsteps on a snowy sidewalk lead up to a glass front door. There are many windows along the front of the building.
Courtesy Kevin Smith
A view of the Renewal Center from the sidewalk.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.
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