By Betsy Reed

West Michigan Community Mental Health System

Mental health professionals typically carry a few extra letters behind their last names — initials that signify academic degrees and special certifications earned by way of college educations. These credentials are a way to ensure that people providing mental health services are knowledgeable and educated in their field.

A few years ago, Michigan began to recognize a new class of professionals: those who have earned their stripes not by sitting in lecture halls, reading books, or writing papers, but by living with the diagnoses they seek to treat. Called Certified Peer Support Specialists, these individuals undergo a week-long training provided by the State of Michigan and are employed by Community Mental Health providers. The training is intense, but their real credentials come from experiencing mental illness, mental health treatment, and recovery.

Mari Sladick and Steve Plummer are Certified Peer Support Specialists at West Michigan Community Mental Health. They each work closely with adults who have serious mental illness and live at home in the community.

Mari came into this line of work with a bachelor’s degree in human services. But, she said, it wasn’t the degree that got her hired but her personal experience with mental illness. She has bipolar disorder. In her earlier years, there were some very difficult times. She’s been stable for quite a few years now thanks to a good medication regimen and the skills she has learned along the way. She loves working with people in recovery and calls her job “a gift.”

Steve’s initial career path was music performance. He moved to New York and played with several different bands. His recovery journey involves substance use and an anxiety disorder. Now in recovery, Steve moved back home to the Ludington area with an eye toward a career in helping others recover. “I feel good about where I landed,” said Steve. He enjoys playing gigs locally on a regular basis, and using his personal experience to help others at his day job.

Both Mari and Steve say that having lived the recovery experience is a real asset while working with people who have mental illness and substance use disorders.

“It allows (the people I work with) to relate,” said Steve. “It makes it easier for them to share their experience.”

Mari draws on her personal experience very frequently while working with others. She can empathize with others who struggle because she knows what that “black hole” of depression is like — when you can’t even get off the couch.

“I still get sad sometimes,” Mari said. “I may cry a lot for a few days. But I always know that this too shall pass.”

With that wisdom gained through real experience, Mari is able to encourage others who deal with the same demons.

Mari’s personal experience also helps her encourage others to continue their medication regimen. Stopping medication is a common misstep made by people with mental illness when they start feeling better. Mari tried this once, too. She ended up in such a very bad place, and when she started the meds again it was hard to bounce back. She now takes her meds without fail. She has shared this experience with people many times in order to urge them to avoid making the same mistake she did.

Seeing the changes people make as they grow and recover is a highlight of the job. Steve relates to a young man who plays guitar and has also dealt with substance use. Music has become a way for this man to channel his energies in a positive way, to avoid negative thoughts that can be so destructive.

“It’s a great feeling to see the changes people can make,” Steve said.

Seeing people work hard and succeed at recovery is especially exciting for Mari. She shared a story about one gentleman who was very socially isolated and had a hard time even leaving his home. Now he regularly enjoys getting together with friends to play pool. Small steps like these make a huge difference in a person’s mental health and quality of life.

“I get all excited,” Mari said about how it feels to see a person blossom and grow. “I jump up and down; I’m full of praise. I tell them, ‘You’ve done the work; now see how far you’ve come.’”

Betsy Reed is the Quality Assurance and Public Relations Coordinator at West Michigan Community Mental Health.