I have been working at the intersection of behavioral health and the justice system for the last 25 years. I’ve seen, heard, and experienced many things while working in state prisons, county jails, community mental health centers, hospitals, managed care, and now traveling the country through my work at Policy Research Associates. When I first started full-time at the Community Mental Health Center of Lancaster County (Lincoln, Nebraska), we had received Nebraska’s first Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant to implement a behavioral health jail-diversion program. As part of this grant, we were required to work with peers or persons with lived experience. This was a completely foreign concept to me 17 years ago, as I was coming fresh off working 7 years in the Nebraska state prison system. The reluctance I initially had 17 years ago to my personal experiences today are akin to a night and day experience.
As a result of the personal relationships I have today, I’ve not only had a good deal of exposure to peer-run and operated programs focusing on reentry housing and support for persons with behavioral health disorders coming out of the prison system, hospital aversion housing, etc., I’ve had unique and very humbling opportunities to participate in activities that never in a million years did I think I would be a part of:
- The Honu Home (prison reentry programming and housing) operated by the Mental Health Association of Nebraska (MHA-NE) sits right next door and shares a parking lot with an assisted living facility where the MHA-NE Executive Director’s mother lives. Last Halloween (pre-COVID-19), they hosted a joint Halloween activity where the staff and residents of Honu Home helped supply candy for the residents at the Lexington Assisted Living Facility (the Lexington) to hand out to children who came through trick-or-treating. On July 4th, the Lexington funded the purchasing of fireworks that the staff and residents of Honu Home then lit off for all the residents of both facilities to watch while playing patriotic music, particularly in honor of Veterans living at the Lexington.
- In 2019, I played on an indoor winter kickball team made up of myself, state corrections staff, residents of Honu who were discharged out of those prisons, and peer staff.
- I’m currently playing on a summer/fall softball team for which I play pitcher. Our first baseman is a male under the supervision of parole who hears voices and sometimes has to compete with these auditory hallucinations while we are in the middle of a game. Our second baseman is a woman who is missing some teeth due to long-term meth use and trauma. She was one of the Peer Specialists we hired for our behavioral health jail diversion program 15 years ago, as she was also a success story of the diversion program. One of our outfielders is a male who spent 20+ years in prison who I used to see in segregation (when I worked in the Nebraska prison system) and conduct mental status exams. Our catcher is a woman who used to receive services at the county mental health center I was the Deputy Director at, and she was chronically suicidal. It has been fantastic to watch our team come together this season as we prepare to play for the city championship in our softball division on Sunday, October 11, 2020.
During the last 18 months, my eyes have been opened to a world that I have only lived on one side of historically. These experiences have been truly humbling. It has been my honor to see people not only get second chances at living the lives they want, but to also interact with this group of people as their peer, their teammate, and a fan rooting for their individual and collective success.