For mental health, we are familiar with psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. There is another valuable resource – peer support specialists – a group who draw on past experiences to help bridge the gap between Veteran and provider.

Coast Guard Veteran Lavinia Jackson (pictured above) knows how valuable a knowledgeable peer support specialist can be on the road to recovery. Jackson was diagnosed with PTSD from a rape while on active duty.

“This guy hands me this cup with a red liquid. I refused it. But he forced me to drink it.” Several minutes later she felt strange and woozy. “I remember sitting on the couch and then I woke up and my clothes were torn.”

She didn’t remember the drive home the next day. Friends kept her calm. She took a shower, which she was not supposed to do. A rape kit was acquired but nothing was found. The perpetrators were never caught.

Jackson began to have flashbacks and her life was changed completely. But today, her attitude is hopeful. “There is always a lesson and a blessing even in the greatest of tragedies,” she said.

It has taken time, lots of counseling and medication, but she has turned the corner. When she speaks, there is joy and love in her voice.

“They told me someone is in there”

“When I began peer support, I was quiet, withdrawn, extremely habitual,” she recalled. “I wasn’t engaged in the community. But they told me someone is in there and we are going to give you the skills to bring her back.

“The beautiful thing about peer support is that there is no pressure. They allowed me to play the game, using old habits to mask and cope. It allowed me to know other Veterans are struggling. Peer support allowed me to put that on a shelf and be a human being again.”

“One of my keywords is hope”

Peer support specialist Sherrie Cook is an Air Force Veteran with 10 years of VA experience at the Salisbury VA Health Care System. She decided she wanted to help Veterans who were challenged with mental health issues and educate them about recovery possibilities.

Air Force Veteran and peer support specialist Sherrie Cook

“You can get back to a semblance about what normal living is like,” Cook said. “One of the keywords I have is hope. Recovery is possible because there is hope. You don’t have to look at the world from the bottom. You can look up and see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And that can bring you ways of changing how you think about life in a positive manner.”

Peer support specialists have gone through either substance abuse issues or mental health issues. They have been through what they are trying to show others how to deal with.

“I struggled with how I was thinking about myself,” Cook said. “I never went through drugs, but some of the experiences I had in the military, like being told I was nothing, that I couldn’t do certain jobs because I was a woman. It made me feel bad, like I was not capable of doing a lot of things. It made it really hard to feel good about myself.”

“Recovery is possible. Follow your dreams”

Cook participated in a program at Durham VA in North Carolina. She got with a group of Veterans who told her a mental health challenge didn’t mean she couldn’t contribute to the world. That, along with medication, really helped her.

“It helps me share with Veterans who are not sure about themselves, that talking and seeing that recovery is possible and something they can do. It’s possible to set goals, follow your dreams and achieve goals.”

For Cook, “each day is a new opportunity to experience hope. When life seems hopeless, they don’t see anything but that. We help them see an alternative, to see not yesterday but look at the future. That is where hope comes in. Most days, my job is great. When it becomes overwhelming, I use the skills that I taught other people to help myself.”

Veterans interested in participating in peer support need a referral from their Mental Health Service provider.

Todd Goodman is a public affairs specialist at the Salisbury VA Health Care System.

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Published on Dec. 7, 2020

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