FolkTime is nearly 30 years old – but the idea of offering peer-provided services to people with mental health issues, which the organization has done since 1986, is starting to gain traction in policy discussions.
“Intentional peer support was not fully articulated 28 years ago,” said new executive director Kris Moore, who took the helm following Tom Brady‘s retirement in December. “Hospitals had been closed, but there was still so much stigma. We had not matured as a society, as a culture. We have so much maturing to do.”
The nonprofit was started in 1985 by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, after a group of clergy expressed concern about congregation members with mental illness. Moore also comes from a faith-based background: he is a graduate of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, the only Presbyterian seminary on the West Coast. Prior to accepting the position at FolkTime, he worked at the Zimmerman Community Center, which helped start day care centers for children in affordable housing. He has also worked at Outreach in Burnside, which has since merged with the MacDonald Center, and is focused on helping people with dual diagnoses manage their money, and for Family Bridge, an interfaith hospitality group. Prior to that, he taught middle school.
Still, he said, “There’s so many things I haven’t done.”
He said FolkTime’s mission of inclusiveness and “radical hospitality” is in line with the values he was raised with. “I believe that’s where we do more than change laws, but where we change people’s hearts, and where there is inclusiveness.”
He said his parents had two biological children – his older sisters – then adopted him and several more children, two of whom were family friends orphaned by a car accident. One year at Thanksgiving, Moore said, he came home and there were 28 guests – only two of whom were related to his parents by blood.
“What I learned from them is, ‘You’re welcome, and bring your friends.’”
Historically, FolkTime has provided community support services for people with mental illnesses, including meals and outings. In the last few years, the organization has grown – Moore said in the past two years, its budget has increased fourfold – and its roster of services has expanded.
A video made by Portland filmmaker Nili Yosha, which is available at Vimeo.com and was played at last week’s fund-raising breakfast, touted FolkTime’s “Open Minds, Open Doors” anti-stigma campaign. It told the story of a U.S. Navy veteran named Sarah, who said she suffered from psychotic symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the film, she talked about how she’s been able to piece her life back together – she is married, raising a young daughter and getting ready to apply to art school – and is committed to helping other veterans with mental health problems.
“Folk Time,” directed by Nili Yosha
Following the screening, a panel of people introduced by Clackamas County behavioral health director Jill Archer discussed their experiences with mental health recovery.
“It gives me chills sometimes to see the successes. It gives me chills when they call and say, ‘I’m struggling,’” said David Dedrickson, who identifies as a veteran with a dual diagnosis, meaning he has struggled with mental health issues as well as substance abuse.
Panelist Michael Hlebechuk, who helped found Mind Empowered, Inc., one of the first peer-run mental health recovery programs, said for years he was told the best he could expect was a regular Social Security check and, hopefully, to stay out of hospitals. It was only through working with other people with mental illness that he was able to get better, he said. During one period, he thought he was an angel – “My name’s Michael, by the way,” he said, smiling – and what helped him was meeting an individual who thought he was God.
Often, Archer said during her keynote talk, a peer is the only person who can get through to someone who is not yet ready for treatment.
“When someone is not interested in treatment, you can walk on that path with them, and it’s often the only thing that gets them to the next place,” Archer said.
“I believe the system can change and let people choose their own course in life. That’s how people recover,” Hlebechuk said. “Without that, people cannot recover.”
In recent years, peer recovery has gone from being an informal movement to one that is more formally defined. Since 2010, FolkTime has certified 153 people as peer wellness specialists, while Portland State University has begun a two-semester credentialing program for peers.
Archer said when she first began her career, she “didn’t always get it,” and sometimes marginalized families and people with mental illness when creating treatment plans.
During a question and answer session after the panel discussion, where all questions were anonymous, one question came in about how peers can avoid stigma and tokenization.
Lynn Jones, who’s been a patient at the Oregon State Hospital for four years and called herself a “snobbish business woman” before she started showing symptoms of mental illness, said she advocates for fellow patients as often as she can, and refuses to “self-stigmatize.” She also uses her real, full name when she discusses her mental health challenges, and encourages others to do the same.
Panelist Angel Prater said a turning point in her recovery from mental illness and substance abuse occurred when a counselor disclosed her own struggle. While counseling programs urge students not to discuss their own lives with patients, Prater said that was the first moment when she felt like someone “got it,” and she started to have hope. In addition, putting too much emphasis on labels can be harmful, since everyone has lived with trauma or big, difficult emotions, she said.
It can be a difficult line to walk, said Meghan Caughey, senior director of peer support services at Cascadia Behavioral Health, who told the audience she serves as both a “team member” and an advocate for peers. While many healthcare organizations don’t employ peers, there are more opportunities through coordinated care organizations.
Moore said he is excited to see awareness of the movement grow, and is hopeful about FolkTime’s future as an organization.
“I’m excited about where we are on several levels. Peer support is kind of the hidden truth behind wellness and recovery and hope.”