Graduated From My Mind: Why Lived Experience is an Asset in Mental Health Practices

by Stars Training Academy   1 Comment

Lorne teaching at Hot Spot

By Lorne Wood, Peer Training Specialist


One of the earliest memories is of my dad talking with some man at the front door to our apartment, and the man pulled out a knife and suddenly stabbed my dad in the side. My father lived, but the incident had an impact on me. My parents dealt Meth out of our LA County home and I’m pretty sure the guy who stabbed him was an irate customer.

I was about nine years old when I was taken away from my parents, along with my two brothers, and we were put into the Los Angeles foster care system. I eventually moved through about 14 foster homes in the next seven years. Despite this, I fondly recall a fair amount of my childhood after that. I did well in school, had extremely high-test scores, and even got accepted to the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program.

I received a lot of therapy throughout those years, and over the past six years, I have had the amazing opportunity to work in behavioral health in capacities that encourage me to use that experience in a positive way. Now, I work as a Peer Training Specialist for the Stars Training Academy, and I get to travel the United States training mental health professionals in a youth-oriented evidenced-supported practice (the Transition to Independence Process (TIP) Model) and sharing my perspective and insights as a consumer.

So as a person with “lived experience” myself, I want to share what I think Peer Support Specialists bring to the table. The simplest answer is that they provide hope. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that one of the key beliefs that made it hard for me to deal with my depression when I was younger was the belief that I was alone in my depression, that there was something wrong with me and I was different than those around me. Being able to dispel this belief is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of being a peer. Peers are living proof that there’s a point in having hope.

One of the parts about being a youth peer that I find most fascinating is the innate ability to place yourself in that person’s shoes and understand why they are responding to their circumstances and events in their life the way that they are. For example, I’ve found that while I don’t always have the answers for someone, it is still very easy for me to understand and empathize with them when they are isolating, ditching school, smoking weed, etc. This is in part because they are handling their struggles in a way very similar to how I handled mine. Some might say that you can never truly understand someone else’s struggles or emotions. I believe that if you can make that person feel heard and not judged, if you can be empathic without trying to fix them, then they may feel understood.

What else do peers do?

Bond Over Interests


Because many peers are the same age group as the people they work with, it makes sense that we would have similar interests. I worked with a peer who used to wear a lot of clothes with his favorite sports teams on them knowing that it was something that would start a conversation. I spent a fair amount of time bonding with the youth by playing video games and guitar, because that was always a promising way to build rapport.

Bridging the Gap

It’s common to see people who are reluctant to engage in therapy even if they are engaged in peer services. Peers can help with this by asking youth they have strong rapport with if they would be willing to talk with their therapist more. I’ve found that if I have that rapport and if I can tell them I understand how talking to a therapist might be stressful for them, they are usually willing to at least give it a try.

Empathy and Understanding

While this isn’t exclusive to peers, it is worth noting that they often have the first-hand experience that makes it easier to relate and validate someone’s struggles.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it should paint a picture of why peers are important in mental health and should be valued like other mental health professionals.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paul Sanders September 11, 2018 at 5:57 pm

As a wraparound social worker, I work side-by-side with those with lived-experience and find them invaluable on my family teams! When I introduce them to the families, I always say that the main difference between those with lived experience and us ‘professionals’ (air-quotes emphasized), is that when they say, “I know how you feel,” or “I’ve been there,” it’s legit, whereas I can only truly say, “I think I know what you’re going through.”

As a Master’s-level therapist, I remember a study whereupon the researcher concluded that it mattered less what theoretical orientation the therapist used and it mattered most that the client felt truly understood.
This is what the team member with the lived-experience brings and may be the only conduit that can engage a defended or wounded client/family.

My $0.02.
Paul Sanders


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