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Articulated is a collection of articles related to mental health, published periodically that include news, thought, opinion, and stories of mental health recovery. 


There are few who understand the value of peer support better than our military veterans. From training, through combat, and into retirement, each phase of a veteran’s military career is characterized by challenges those of us who have never served in the military will ever be able to truly understand. The necessities of a successful military unit—including teamwork and trust—are typically fostered from the first day a recruit arrives at training camp. The collective self-reliance of a fully realized community of soldiers is an awesome thing to witness. And yet, even those soldiers who have been to the brink of death, who have suffered mightily in body and spirit, still need skills and tools to use their experience of recovery to support others.


The Georgia Mental Health Consumer is pleased to be able to provide those skills and tools through our Certified Peer Specialist Project training, which has always encouraged Georgia’s military veterans to train with us, and in many cases to become Network employees. In fact, the current president of GMHCN’s Board of Directors Sergeant Major E. Joseph Sanders is not only a military veteran, he is a Certified Peer Specialist-MH, and provides peer support to fellow veterans at the Atlanta VA Medical Center.

According to Sanders, there are approximately 60 peer specialists currently employed by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Healthcare Systems in Georgia, and of those 25 were trained by GMHCN through the Georgia Certified Peer Specialist Project training.

While one soldier supporting another through challenging times is a concept as old as war itself, the formal use of peer support as we understand it today began for veterans in 2008 under the Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008, which established the peer support requirements and qualifications, and in 2012 was expanded significantly when President Obama signed an executive order mandating the VHA to hire 800 peer support providers for mental health care.

Since that time, the VHA has passed Georgia and other states known for advancing peer support by creating opportunities for advancement and promotion for its peer support providers, who are hired in pay grades G6-G9, and may advance up to pay grade GS-11. In 2019 the VHA authorized the establishment of Peer Specialist Leads in pay grade GS-10 and Supervisory Peer Specialists in grade GS-11, creating a career a path that does not exist in Georgia’s public behavioral health system, where peer support workers frequently find other roles where advancement and promotion are possible, creating a revolving door of peer support talent and experience.


In addition to opportunity, recognition is also important. Each of Georgia’s three VHA Healthcare Systems annually identifies a Peer of the Year, and in 2021 all three of Georgia’s Peers of the Year were trained by GMHCN: Deshawn Dent, Eric Ellis, and Heather King from the VA Medical Centers in Atlanta, Augusta, and Dublin, respectively. King was also selected as the Veterans Integrated Service Network 07 Peer of the Year. VISN 07 consists of the eight Veteran Medical Centers and all their Community Based Outpatient Clinics in Alabama, Georgia and, South Carolina, together employing about 90 Certified Peer Specialists.

When asked to describe her work, King sounds much like many other successful Certified Peer Specialists, and identifies her favorite part of the work as “seeing the light go on when the person I am working with finally understands that there is hope, that we can and do recover, and is able to take off and flourish on their own.” And like most other peer specialists, King would like to see peer support better utilized in her community, particularly in hospital emergency departments, where she sees great potential for peer specialists to work “as bridge builders between healthcare providers and people experiencing a mental health crisis.”


That ability to envision potential is what provides hope to GMHCN Executive Director Sherry Jenkins Tucker, who observed while congratulating Georgia’s Peers of the Year that “Our military veterans have always had a special place here at the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network not just because of what they have sacrificed, but because of what they have to offer today. Their understanding of camaraderie, and in particular their ability to create an esprit de corps with other Certified Peer Specialists, has helped to build and strengthen Georgia’s Certified Peer Specialist workforce. I am grateful for them.”


A condensed version of this article appeared in the 2021 Volume 2 issue of The Pipeline.

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Heather King, CPS-MH


Ed. Note: When this article was sent to print in January 2020 (2020 Volume 3 of The Pipeline), few of us could imagine how prescient Jean Toole's words would come to be over the next years, when resilience, fortitude and a clear vision have been more essential than ever for nonprofit organizations to survive and thrive.

Since Community Friendship, Incorporated (CFI) first began providing psychosocial rehabilitation program services in 1973, much has changed in the world, and in the realm of mental health services.  Not only have there been five new editions published of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, the foundation of treatment and diagnosis in the clinical services profession, there have also been significant changes in the way public behavioral health funds are distributed.  So too has there been a sea change in public perception about mental illness, and the opportunities available to people living with mental health concerns. Throughout these changes CFI has remained an anchor of the mental health recovery community in Atlanta, and a national model for the integration of peer support into recovery-oriented mental health services.

At a time when many organizations are experiencing discomfort as a result of changes that are being enacted or considered at the state and national level, The Pipeline asked CFI to share about how it has thrived through the many changes it has experienced over the years. Their response, which included a lot of time and resources, demonstrated their organization’s unofficial motto: “When in Doubt, Do the Friendliest Thing”.  What we learned is that CFI has been able to be so resilient as an organization because it embraces the values it promotes in its services—a willingness to grow and change while remaining true to itself.    

And CFI has grown tremendously through the years. An abbreviated list of the services CFI currently provides includes psychosocial rehabilitation program services, vocational rehabilitation, supported employment, residential services at nine locations, trainings, homeless outreach and case management, peer support, intensive case management, whole health and wellness, and community transition planning.      

According to Jean Toole, the President and CEO of CFI, the organization has been able to grow into a comprehensive provider of recovery-based mental health services by “staying focused on what we do, and staying true to our vision. We are here to serve people, and help them have a better life.  We just keep doing the work that is important to the people we serve. We are fortunate to have such a well-rounded network of resources, from staff to community partners, to the ability to diversify our funding opportunities.  We have grown tremendously as an organization, incorporating new technologies, new ideas, and increasing efficiency in our workflow processes.  What has not changed is our primary focus, which is always the person sitting in front of us, who has come to us for support in achieving a better life. CFI believes that keeping our focus on the people we serve will enable us to continue the work we do.”    

When GMHCN launched the Certified Peer Specialist Project training in 2001, CFI began sponsoring participants, and from that very first training, Certified Peer Specialists have been an important part of the CFI workforce. Today, approximately 23% of CFI’s workforce is people with lived experience recovering from behavioral health concerns. Sherry Jenkins Tucker, GMHCN’s Executive Director, is very appreciative of the support GMHCN has received from CFI over the years, saying “the early and successful introduction of Certified Peer Specialists at Community Friendship was very beneficial to the development of the peer support workforce in Georgia. Our state is recognized as a leader and innovator in peer support, and through its early embrace of recovery-focused services, Community Friendship helped make that possible. It is always an honor to be able to collaborate with CFI. Jean Toole’s leadership, and friendship, are very important to me personally, as well as to GMHCN. We are all better off because of the work of CFI.”    


Local, state, and national leaders agree. Throughout the years, CFI has received many accolades recognizing the value of the work they do, including the 2018 Behavioral Health Exceptional Recovery-Oriented Service Award from Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. “We are proud of the recognition our programs have received,” says Toole, “but our real pride comes from seeing the impact we have, working together, in the lives of the people we serve.”


Jean Toole,

President and CEO,

Community Friendship, Inc.

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