Imagine a room full of people who have overcome trauma, addiction, and extreme mental health challenges, united in their desire to help others recover. Imagine them bonding, learning, and supporting each other. Imagine them telling their recovery stories—voices breaking, tears flowing—while the others cheer them on.

Welcome to peer support specialist training.

From January 21 to 25, nineteen people attended a peer support specialist training in High Point, offered jointly by the Mental Health Association in Greensboro and RHA Behavioral Health. Sarah Bobo, director of the High Point Crisis Walk-In Center, led the training. Mary Seymour, director of GROW at MHAG, assisted.

Extended discussions and small-group activities were the order of the day, covering topics from self-awareness to crisis management. “I don’t want y’all to experience death by PowerPoint,” Sarah explained of her hands-on, free-wheeling style.

The class wrote their own definitions of "recovery"
The class wrote their own definitions of “recovery”

During the 40-hour training, participants pondered questions such as, What role do nonverbals play in a peer support session? What’s the difference between advice and support? How should spirituality be approached?

In one activity, designed to show the power of a strengths-based approach, participants paired off and talked about three strengths they observed in each other. In another, the class broke into four groups; each group marketed themselves as the best peer support specialist team, highlighting the skills needed for the job.

On Thursday afternoon, people shared their recovery stories, telling what they’d struggled with and how far they had come. Nina showed a portrait of herself she’d drawn a couple of years ago. “A monster—that’s what I felt like,” she said. “I don’t see myself that way anymore.”

Nina's portrait of how she used to feel about herself
Nina’s portrait of how she used to feel about herself

There were stories of abuse and PTSD, bipolar disorder and addiction, incarceration and involuntary commitment, depression and suicide attempts. All ended on a positive note, of finding hope and inner strength. Running through all the stories was the thread of healing through helping others.

Laughs, tears, and four boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts prevailed at Friday’s graduation ceremony. Sarah hugged each participant as she handed out graduation certificates. Many chose to say a few heartfelt words.

“You guys changed my life,” said Jackie.

Jackie speaks to the group after receiving her certificate of graduation
Jackie speaks to the group

Patrick looked around the room with his warm, steady gaze. “It’s a blessing to be on this journey with you all.”

Patrick gets his certificate and a hug from Sarah
George gets his certificate and a hug from Sarah

Sarah H. commented, “I’m leaving with a lot of family I didn’t have before.”

“This is a big deal to me because I didn’t go to college,” said Madonna. “And now I have something that comes out of mental illness, something I can go into the workforce with.”

After the graduation ceremony
After the graduation ceremony

People lingered after the ceremony, even with sleet threatening to slicken the roads, because they just didn’t want to let go—of each other, of the moment, of the triumph of turning life’s hardships into something rich and meaningful.

The group—blurry but happy
The group—blurry but happy