NYC Health + Hospitals on July 24, 2023, announced its Peer Academy had graduated over 50 people with lived experience with mental health or substance use conditions to become peer counselors. Twenty-five of the 38 graduates in the first two classes have been hired as peer counselors, and 17 of them work within NYC Health + Hospitals. Twelve additional students graduated from the program this month. Peer counselors are able to connect with traditionally hard-to-reach patients by sharing their lived experiences. Peers are living proof that recovery is possible, and they are highly adept at inspiring hope for those that they serve. NYC Health + Hospitals currently has 86 peers on staff across the system, the largest hospital-based peer workforce in the city. In addition to the self-directed hours required for State certification, the program includes six weeks of classroom training and a six-week, full-time, hospital-based internship with rotations in the inpatient mental health unit, emergency department, and mobile crisis teams. Peer Academy staff work with the students to help them find and maintain employment for up to six months after graduation. The next session of the Peer Academy will take place in the fall. Applications are available here.
“Peer services are a critical part of the behavioral health care that we provide to our patients,” said NYC Health + Hospitals Co-Deputy Chief Medical Officer and System Chief of Behavioral Health Omar Fattal, MD, MPH. “We are proud to continue our investment in the city’s behavioral health workforce through our Peer Academy, which trains people with lived experience with mental health or substance use disorders to become certified peer counselors. NYC Health + Hospitals is proud to have the largest hospital-based peer workforce in the city, and excited to continue to grow this valuable role for New Yorkers.”
“The Peer Academy was different from anything I’ve experienced,” said Regina Fambro, CRPA-P, Peer Counselor at NYC Health + Hospitals/North Central Bronx. “I went from living in a world where I felt no one understood me, to being in a room where easily 20 people can relate to me. That was huge for me. We learned through classroom instruction and were hands on during our internship. We built a family amongst ourselves through community-building exercises. We supported each other but also held each other accountable. Our team laughed, cried, and danced together. The Peer Academy has prepared me in my current role as a Peer Counselor by giving me the courage to open up and be able to help patients I encounter, it increased the amount of empathy I already had for people, and it’s also allowed me to learn appropriate ways to advocate for my patients and ensure they are treated from their illness and not their condition whether it’s substance abuse or mental health.”
“The Peer Academy gave me this incredible opportunity to inspire and support others who are suffering from addiction, so they don’t have to go through it alone,” said Jack Chudasama, a student in the first cohort of the Peer Academy who is now a Peer Counselor at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst. “For 30 years, I battled addiction, so being a peer counselor is good for my own recovery, too. It grounds me and gives me a strong sense of purpose.”
“For years, I saw a psychiatrist and a therapist, but when I started working with a peer counselor and going to a peer support group, I had a breakthrough,” said Brian Pelzer, who receives services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Woodhull. “You’re with other people who have similar problems, and you realize there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I reconnected with my family, and I learned techniques that help me in my day-to-day life. Now I go to my peer group every week, and it’s a part of my recovery.”
Peer counselors are an important and growing occupation in the behavioral health field, but the jobs are hard to fill. Prior to the creation of the Peer Academy in 2022, peer counselors had the highest vacancy rate of any behavioral health occupation at NYC Health + Hospitals. NYC Health + Hospital’s peer counselor workforce continues to grow, as more programs and services expand their use of peer services, and the vacancy rate remains high.
The Peer Academy includes the self-directed learning and classroom hours needed for the State certifications to become a Certified Peer Specialist for mental health and a Certified Recovery Peer Advocate for substance use. It includes over 20 hours of online workshops, 168 hours of classroom training, and 168 hours at a hospital-based internship.
An increasing number of the students are former NYC Heath + Hospital patients who were referred by clinicians throughout the system and are in recovery yet have very limited work histories. There is huge interest in participating in the program, as it is a job that suffuses someone’s life with meaning and purpose. The work is also attractive because it is a unionized, City job, with built-in career ladders and ample opportunity to grow at a large organization.