Carolinas HealthCare System
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Former Patients Tapped to Fill Unique Position at New Hospital

Shawn Caldwell and Joseph Swafford, peer support specialists at Mindy Ellen Levine Behavioral Health Hospital, are filling a unique position at this new hospital. Both are former patients, now using their experience and knowledge to motivate and assist current patients who are undergoing treatment for behavioral health diagnosis.

Caldwell and Swafford currently make up the Peer Support Specialists team at the Mindy Ellen Levine Behavioral Health Hospital. This two-man team is both innovative in this space and a key component of the multidisciplinary team. This duo draws on their own experience and battle with mental illness to provide a type of talk therapy which enhances the patients’ treatment. The program also proves rewarding to the peer support specialists and the career they chose to assist others.

“I get to give hope to a lot of hopeless people,” Caldwell said. “I don’t make a million bucks, but when you see a patient get a little bit of hope you realize that hope has no monetary value. It makes me thankful to all the people that gave me hope when I was hopeless.”

The specialists themselves are required to be in recovery from either a mental health issue and or a substance abuse issue.

“What’s been the most impactful change to me is how the relationship between the clinical staff and the peer specialists has improved over the year and how when we work together we can really make a significant impact on the overall care of each patient,” said Swafford. For many of the doctors, this is the first time they have worked alongside a peer specialist.

“It’s very collaborative work,” said Maria Almeida, MD. “The peer specialists give us feedback and their observations are very helpful to me, especially since sometimes patients are uncomfortable talking to me (a doctor) about certain issues, and we see that they can relate better to their peer.”

For example, many patients are reluctant to take medications, but when they hear the importance of taking them from a peer, they are more compliant. Same with drinking alcohol- the messages about the dangers of drinking and the benefits of sobriety are better when delivered by a peer.

A big part of therapy for patients happens during group sessions. This is an opportunity for them to hear directly from the peer support specialists and to witness how the peer specialists have overcome their struggles with mental health. This encourages and motivates the patients and offers them hope that they too, can recover and succeed.

“My hope for the future is that as our relationship with the peer specialists continues to strengthen, so that patients will see our collaboration and appreciate that we are all helping them, and if they can’t come to us for something they have the option of talking to a peer instead,” said Dr. Almeida.

A female peer support specialist will soon be joining the team.