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Houston Health Department: Supporting Youth Through a Peer Wellness Program

April 25, 2017 | By Evelyn Galante

Early Intervention and Peer Support

Research shows that for those who experience mental illness, 50 percent exhibit conditions by age 14, and 75 percent by age 24. We have the opportunity and responsibility to help young adults develop resiliency and coping skills early on, improving their chances for a more successful future.

However, youth experiencing mental health issues face several challenges, including the stigma of mental illness, resulting in them being less likely to seek traditional counseling. Peer mentoring, a relationship based on shared experiences where one individual is in recovery from a mental health condition, can provide much-needed support and role-modeling to youth.

In 2014, the Hogg Foundation awarded a $1 million grant to Houston Health Department to develop a curriculum, in partnership with youth, to train and certify transition-age youth as Peer Wellness Specialists and integrated health mentors. The initiative is designed to support youth with mental illness who are transitioning into adulthood. The goal was not only to build a curriculum to train youth to serve as Peer Wellness Specialists, but also to provide those peers with meaningful work following the training.

Houston Health Department began researching what was available, but found nothing designed specifically for this particular population of youth that involved peers. After looking at five evidence-based curriculums built for adults, and conducting community meetings and one-on-one interviews, Houston Health Department finalized the curriculum and began its first class in 2015.

The Peer Wellness Specialist program, which combines classroom training and hands-on learning, is unique in the ways it prepares youth to serve as mentors and advocates.

Classroom Learning and Hands-on Experience

Houston Health Department combines classroom training with community participation. By working with other Hogg Foundation grantees to find meaningful work for their Peer Wellness Specialists, the program is seeing considerable success. Trained peers are providing services at local schools, Disability Rights of Texas, The Hay Center, Communities in Schools, The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD, and Family Services.

Supervisor Training

Since many of the agency supervisors have never had employees with mental health conditions or worked with youth in this capacity, Houston Health Department also provides the organizations with supervisor training to ensure peers receive appropriate management support. This holistic approach helps create success for both the agencies and the newly trained peers.

Continued Support and Education

Once placed at an agency, Peer Wellness Specialists are able to receive ongoing support through the training program. They meet regularly with their classmates during the first few months to talk about their work with other youth, learn from each other’s experiences and identify ways to improve. In addition, they receive regular supervision from the Houston Health Department throughout their work.

Success Beyond Expectation

Houston Health Department has trained a total of 14 youth to serve as Peer Wellness Specialists. Upon completing the program, these peers are equipped to use their personal experiences with mental health conditions as a resource to help other young people on their wellness journeys.

Dr. Clemelia Richardson, who leads Mental Health Programs and Services at the Houston Health Department, says, “They’re a very dynamic group of kids, and they want to help their community. They are invincible and see no barriers. Our Peer Wellness Specialists are truly inspiring.”

In addition to their work as individual mentors, Peer Wellness Specialists are serving on numerous council member boards. They’ve also spoken at PeerFest, TNOYS conference, and UT Teen Clinic. Now they’re working on developing an app to connect youth with peers in real time and track feelings, allowing them to be more proactive.

The Hogg Foundation has been focused on assisting transition-age youth —young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who have persistent mental health needs —through our Young Minds Matter conference and grant programs focused on this population.

Learn more about Houston Health Department’s work on this initiative. For more information on the foundation’s projects in this area, contact Vicky Coffee.

hogg.utexas.edu

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