You are the Peer Programs Manager at Via Hope, Mental Health Resource of Texas. What does this role entail, and how do you incorporate your expertise as a peer into this work?

I serve as a management team member at Via Hope, a Texas-based non-profit organization. As the Peer Programs Manager, I am responsible for Mental Health Peer Specialist and Reentry Peer Specialist (RPS) certification training. I also serve as the Project Director for a workforce development grant funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration. Through both roles, my team recruits and trains individuals, develops curricula, and studies peer support best practices. The accomplishments I am most proud of are the creation of the Texas Reentry Peer Specialist Certification and its approval as a national peer certification and training by Mental Health America.

I wasn’t familiar with the recovery movement or peer support as a formalized career path until roughly 7.5 years ago when I came to Texas and began working at the Association of Persons Affected by Addiction (APAA). Before APAA, my background was in higher education as a professor, a campus Dean, and a regional Dean. Higher education facilitated the development of my skills, but my lived experience helped me develop my passion for recovery support. My work and lived experience inform every decision made at Via Hope. Creating quality content for curricula and facilitation fidelity is driven by my lived experience within the criminal legal system.

You coined the term Thrauma®, which looks at trauma as experiences rather than a one-time event and explores how the Thrauma® healing journey is not linear. Why is this a necessary and helpful concept? 

The concept of Thrauma® began when we first finished the reentry peer support curriculum and were promoting it at conferences. Most system-impacted individuals (I don’t say justice-involved because I don’t see the system as justice-related), don’t consciously understand that the experience of trauma is directly related to what they have experienced while incarcerated. I found that the concept of Thrauma® could help system-impacted people better understand how traumatic experiences impacted their lives.

The theory of Thrauma® looks at trauma as a set of experiences rather than a one-time event. Thrauma® encompasses an individual’s experience of trauma before, during, and after incarceration. The reality is that people often experience trauma before their involvement with the system, during their incarceration in a jail or prison, and as they reenter the community. All of those potentially traumatic phases are important. Dissecting those three phases of experienced trauma was transformative for me personally. It allowed me to compartmentalize those phases and then connect them to understand what happened. So instead of saying to someone, “What is wrong with you?” I ask, “What happened to you?” I haven’t met anybody who can’t relate to this idea.

Creating a safe environment for people to have those conversations and those discoveries can be profoundly impactful. To hear somebody say, “I’m 42 and today’s the first day I talked about being molested when I was 5 years old,” is huge. They go on to say they feel physically lighter after sharing with people who can relate and don’t judge. This connectivity is how we know peer support works. Our brains can protect us from remembering trauma until we’re at the age and in the space where it feels safe to share that experience with someone else. The safety in shared experience and the relief from beginning to unpack a painful past may allow people to start the healing process, which should also be supported by a certified trauma therapist.

During SAMHSA’s GAINS Center webinar, “Peer-Led Innovations in Reentry Support Programming: Towards Holistic Recovery,” you explained how it is important to have a Peer Specialist cognizant of the participant’s whole-person perspective. Can you explain to us what a whole-person perspective is?

Incorporating a whole-person perspective in our work means considering a person in their totality—not a one-time experience of trauma, not their criminal history, not their health. It’s everything; it is the total person. It is my education, life experience, and needs as an individual that make me feel whole. Frequently in clinical settings, a professional will tell you what you should do. But from a whole-person perspective, it’s person-centered (e.g., What do you want? What makes you feel whole?). Holistic recovery is the idea of allowing people to discover what it means to be whole to them. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Peer Specialists must understand the whole-person perspective when they are providing services. Peer Specialists must understand that their work is not about them; their work is about the person they are serving. Peer Specialists are trained to share their experiences, respectfully. Sharing personal experience or advice is most impactful when the approach appreciates the total person, rather than isolated life events.

The Texas Reentry Peer Support Certification training was recently approved for national certification through Mental Health America. How is “reentry” peer certification helpful for peers, and what is the benefit of this national certification?

RPSs need a specific certification because reentry is a unique experience. Just like mental health experience is different from substance use experience, the reentry experience is different.

It was important to have the credential created because the recidivism numbers in this country are unacceptable. I am not an advocate to eliminate all prisons—I think there are some evil people in this world. However, I also believe that we disproportionately criminalize mental health and substance use conditions. Many people who are incarcerated should be getting treatment or mental health support or even be in a mental health facility instead of being incarcerated.

The reentry peer support credential was created out of my desire to understand why so many people are incarcerated. When you look at data around recidivism rates, the number of people that re-offend is extremely high, as opposed to those that have been incarcerated only once. I was incarcerated once, and it was enough for me. But you know, many people do not have the level of support I had. My idea was to address people’s trauma so that they could address the things that caused them to keep going back to prison. Now that the peer support certification and training are nationally approved, we can reduce some of those recidivism numbers by having people address and begin the healing process from their trauma.

We have a quality approach to RPS certification training. Anybody in the country can access this training virtually. When Mental Health America reviewed the curriculum and our justification for why we thought it should be a national training, they agreed with us. They thought it should be available to everybody in the country. I think the training should be available to anybody in the world because of the impact that it has had and continues to have on people.

 In 2014, you authored and published a book based on your life story titled “Choices.” It was published as a workbook and is used in jails and prisons all over the country as a mechanism to spark recovery conversations. If you could add two more chapters to continue your life story, what would each chapter’s topic be and why?

I think the two chapters would be “Then Cancer” and “Still I Rise.”

I was diagnosed with cancer a little over a year ago. That diagnosis is so profoundly impactful; I think it would be important to add to my book how that experience relates to recovery and peer support. I used my recovery tools, such as breathing and tapping, to help me process what the doctor was saying during my appointments because hearing the diagnosis of cancer is traumatic in and of itself. Although there are many advances in cancer treatment, I immediately thought of my sister, who died of breast cancer, and other family members who died of other types of cancer. My family immediately came to my side, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and I relied heavily on my faith. Fortunately, the mass was small, but the ordeal taught me to look at life as a delicate gift. There were so many things that used to bother me that no longer faze me.

I always like to end on a positive note, and the first thing that popped into my mind for another chapter title was “Still I Rise.” Choices was about overcoming, it was about consequential thinking, it was about my journey. But it’s going to be a journey until I die. At the end of the day, I’m still thriving and I’m still pushing. People can do that. Recovery can be hard, especially when you may not have the support that I have had and still have. But there are many peer support organizations that can help people know that they’re not alone.