The COVID-19 pandemic has caused countless New Yorkers additional stress, burnout, and anxiety, magnifying the burdens of those who already struggle with mental health and substance use. NYC Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene and FPHNYC Board Chair, Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, has identified mental health as one of the “parallel pandemics” exacerbated by COVID-19. In response to these challenges, the Health Department’s NYC Peer & Community Health Worker Workforce Consortium (the Consortium) is working to reshape the mental health workforce by improving access to care, reducing barriers to services, and supporting workforce development.
Peer support workers are individuals who draw on their own lived experiences overcoming mental health or substance use challenges. They are an important and growing portion of the mental health workforce. They embody hope and model recovery. While traditionally, mental health challenges, substance use, or criminal justice-involvement is a barrier to employment, the peer workforce turns that logic on its head: lived experience is a requirement and an asset for the job. Research has shown that peer workers play a vital role in helping residents secure access to health care and to other services. As trusted members of the community, peer workers engage with their neighbors by listening, sharing their own personal stories of recovery, and assisting in accessing critical resources. And the job is a career ladder and leadership opportunity for the peer support workers.
In 2018, FPHNYC received a $300,000 grant from the Booth Ferris Foundation in support of the Consortium. Many organizations are interested in hiring peers, but don’t know where to start. The Consortium helps providers assess their ability to integrate peers into their organizations and helps support their successful integration. Even organizations and treatment centers who already rely on peer workers often aren’t sure how to promote successful career paths for peer and community health workers. By providing training and technical assistance to organizations to develop a strong peer workforce, the Consortium helps fill these gaps.
In response to the remote work environment required by COVID-19 safety regulations, the Consortium has moved its community meetings online. Community meetings had been attracting 10-20 in-person attendees during 2019, but in 2020 that number increased to an average of 70-80 participants. The Consortium can now engage with the Peer support workforce across the state and even throughout the nation. The Consortium is the only entity to bring all these players together.
COVID-19 and the resulting mental health epidemic have only increased the need for the work of The Consortium. In addition to continuing support to the Peer workforce and their employers, FPHNYC is working with the Health Department to raise additional funding to:
- develop career pathways for existing Peers by working with employers, colleges, and certifying bodies to create advanced peer roles and credit-bearing programs;
- build community and mutual support networks within the Peer workforce;
- launch Housing Peers- individuals who’ve experienced homelessness who can support housing insecure individuals dealing with mental health challenges; and
- establish Justice Peers – individuals with a lived experience with the criminal legal system.
The Consortium is filling a critical need for the city at a time when resources devoted to mental health are needed most. It has already proved itself successful and creatively adaptive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional funding will allow the Consortium to expand on its goals of promoting the Housing and Justice Peers initiatives and creating advance career and education pathways for Peers. To support this and other programs investing in the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers donate here.