Photo of a man presenting at a podium at the Vermont statehouse. There are six other people in the photo who are looking at the presenter. The interior is red and brown.

Vermont Judiciary Commission On Mental Health And The Courts First Annual Summit

Written By: Alexander Ferguson, Training Specialist

*This blog post is an adaptation of a speech given by Alexander Ferguson, Training Specialist at Pathways Vermont, during the Summit.

I am grateful for this opportunity to be here today and have the privilege to speak with this group of leaders. I have worked in peer support for the past decade. I come here as someone with raw life experiences which I have found to be my greatest asset when it comes to this work.

I’ve learned through my practice of peer support that this work is truly about shifting narratives, so I want to begin there: there is a widely held belief that when someone does something harmful, disruptive, or destructive, this is the result of some “problem” that’s organic to the person. Thus, the person is defined by this “problem.” When a person is convicted of a crime and labeled a criminal, that has an impact on how they understand themself, how their community members interact with them, and how they move through the world from that moment forward. We have an opportunity to change the approach, to shift this way of thinking and instead recognize that when someone does something harmful, disruptive, or destructive, this is actually a symptom of a social problem. People, their choices, and their actions cannot be decontextualized from what’s happened to and around them. When someone is in crisis, we have a choice: we can control and label them, or we can support them to navigate their experience, take accountability for their actions and any harm they’ve caused, and figure out sustainable ways to be in community.

Within the context of individuals who are experiencing mental health challenges or crises, it is sometimes the response of providers to require treatment, which may include risk assessments, institutionalization, incarceration, medication, and therapy. The goal of these interventions is typically to “stabilize” or “normalize” someone’s behavior based on social norms. This process is often lacking empathy, validation, curiosity, and cultural awareness. It is unreasonable to expect every human being to respond gracefully to traumatic events. We can’t expect everyone to fit into the mold of what we believe a “normal” human being should look like, think like, or behave like, especially when these ideas of “normal” can often exclude many of us. Have you ever experienced a crisis or had a tough time and expressed yourself in ways that just didn’t make sense to those around you? Have you ever had a loved one express themself in ways that didn’t make sense to others?

It’s not as simple as “this person has done something harmful, disruptive, or destructive and we need to control them” – we have to ask, why has this person done something harmful, disruptive, or destructive? What happened to them? What is their cultural context? How did they learn to move through the world? What of their needs aren’t being met?

James Baldwin said, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.”

When someone’s own conception of safety has been so thoroughly broken, we inadvertently do them harm and an injustice if we impose our conception of safety onto them. While it’s important to prioritize community safety, it is also important for us to remember and recognize the impacts of collective trauma on marginalized communities. Important to question the narrative that we are telling and that is being told to us. We need to become more conscious of when biases, judgments, and assumptions play into our discomfort with the way in which someone is expressing themselves. The way in which an upper class middle aged white person experiences grief or loss could look different than a lower class black youth. Not everyone’s definition of trauma looks or feels the same.

I would like to share with you a story from my life. I was 19 years old, living in New Jersey and working at a liquor store. I had some struggles with substance abuse and had a group of friends who weren’t the best influences. My family struggled to communicate with me. I began to get into the party scene and started hanging out with some rough characters. Long story short, I found myself with a fractured jaw and concussion after getting into a fight at a party. My bosses and family questioned my injuries. My story was that I fell down the stairs – nobody really believed me. My friends were pushing me to get revenge, even offering to help me do it. Meanwhile my family pushed me to tell them what really happened and then gave me some ultimatums in terms of changes that needed to be made in my life. A few local police officers also started to question me. I really didn’t find any of these approaches helpful, but I knew something had to change. My mind was in a dark place and I wanted revenge on the people who hurt me.

Although still in shock and recovering from a fractured jaw and concussion, I decided to get my haircut at the local barber. While I was in the chair he began his usual routine and asked if I wanted a different style or just a regular shape up. We had an interesting conversation about music, life, and education. He asked me what my goals were for the next year. Where did I see myself one year from now? I told him I was interested in going to college in New York City. While he was trimming the back of my head he then asked me about the bruise behind my ear. “Look like you took a pretty hard hit kid?” I admitted that I had gotten into a fight a few days prior. I said I wasn’t worried about it and that it would be taken care of soon enough. The barber told me he grew up in this neighborhood and had been in some tough situations before. He said that the same guys that jumped me most likely were sitting in the same chair I was earlier this week. He gave me some perspective that most likely these guys were going to end up in jail or dead. He said it sounded like I had other options in front of me and I had to make a decision for myself.

That conversation with the barber supported me towards making the decision to go to college. He wasn’t a counselor or therapist, just another human being sharing his experiences with me. Shortly after that I went to admissions at The Institute of Audio Research & Technology, applied, and got accepted. Next I quit my job at the liquor store and cut ties with my old friends. Looking back, that conversation with the barber changed my life. His non-judgemental approach and the connection he forged with me is what I needed to make the necessary changes in my life that brought me to where I am now.

When thinking about ways in which people cope with trauma and try to meet their needs, we must understand that people will sometimes make choices that don’t make sense to us, that feel dangerous or unsafe to us. It’s not upon us to control people or change their choice. For example, we must understand and accept that licit and illicit drug use is a part of our world. People use drugs for a variety of reasons: to manage or numb emotional or physical pain, to facilitate connection to self and others, to survive a world that doesn’t feel survivable, to feel joy, to feel love, to feel alive. Rather than condemn, criminalize, or ignore drug use, we can choose instead to minimize the harmful effects by practicing peer support. We can meet people where they are, acknowledge their pain and trauma, engage in open and honest conversations about the risks and benefits of drug use, and not seek control or deny their autonomy. That’s what peer support is about at its core, which brings me to an important point:

I believe a crucial part of our conversation today should be about who’s version of peer support are we providing? Which communities are we serving? I often look around at whose voices are at the table and think about who we are missing. The version of peer support that I continue to learn, practice, and teach is based on recognizing each person as the expert of their own experience – meaning that we still preserve someone’s autonomy and choice in what type of support they are looking for. This incorporates a process of us building relationships that look and feel different. Exploring the stories and narratives we tell ourselves and have been told. Shifting that narrative from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?”

So often within systems we are given labels and then forced to fit in these boxes. It’s time for us to think outside the box. Let us remember that many of these systems were originally designed and created in order to oppress marginalized communities. I want to give credit and recognition to all peer support workers in Vermont doing radical and amazing work. A lot of this work in general goes unheard and unseen. I feel it is also important to bring attention to the privilege within treatment and access to services. One person might get a bed at peer respite while another will end up being arrested, then forced to be hospitalized. There are so many people who continue to struggle without any support at all. We need to find ways to break down the barriers and walls together so that mental health services in general can be more accessible.

We can do this by creating more options and opportunities such as peer respites, peer support warmlines, community centers, and peer support groups. These alternatives provide options to individuals like myself who would not otherwise seek out traditional services. This will help fill those gaps within our system after someone is released from incarceration or on a waiting list for therapy or getting stuck in emergency departments because there’s nowhere else to go when experiencing a mental health crisis. These alternatives allow people to remain in their communities while receiving meaningful services and support rather than losing their community connections and autonomy. These alternatives are also less expensive than institutionalization or incarceration – they strengthen communities while decreasing financial burdens.

At Pathways Vermont, we offer alternative mental health services through which we seek to minimize coercion and foster connections through our shared experiences. We operate the Vermont Support Line, a statewide warmline for Vermonters seeking connection and understanding. In Burlington, we have the Pathways Vermont Community Center, where staff connect with community members via drop-in hours, peer support groups, and community engagement. We also have Soteria House, a 5-bed alternative residential program for people experiencing extreme states or first-episode psychosis.

We also firmly believe that housing is a human right. We know that stable housing makes it more possible for people to move through times of crisis. For the past thirteen years we have been working to end homelessness in Vermont through our Housing First program. Since we began providing services in 2010, Pathways has housed nearly 1400 Vermonters across the state. Through our partnership with the Department of Corrections, we’ve housed 340 people leaving incarceration. The majority of people we’ve housed self-report a history of trauma.

Across all of our programs, we practice peer support and harm reduction through our principles of humanity, authenticity, collaboration, humility, curiosity, and hope. We honor individual choice and self-determination and regard each person as the expert of their own experience. We resist biases, judgments, and assumptions. Here’s an example: when someone is experiencing substance use challenges, a widely-held assumption is that their substance use is the “problem” and that sobriety is the answer and must be the focus of their “treatment.” However, this approach sometimes ignores why someone is using substances in the first place.

We understand that substance use is often the solution to a problem or challenge, so our approach focuses on understanding a person’s experience and the way they’ve learned to make meaning. We get curious about their life, their journey, and how they’ve learned to survive. We empathize with their struggles and talk openly about our own. We build collaborative, trusting relationships where we can have open and honest conversations about their self-defined goals and desires for their life. We ask about what’s working for them and what’s not working for them. We celebrate their wins and support them through their challenges. Through these conversations, we make space for possibilities – opportunities for growth, change, and transformation.

We practice this approach because many of us at Pathways know what it’s like to be disregarded as the expert of our own experience, to be denied opportunities for growth and transformation. We employ people with lived experience across the agency in service roles, admin roles, and leadership roles, including our Executive Director and several members of our agency leadership team. These lived experiences include trauma, intense emotional distress, suicidality, psychiatric oppression, challenges with substance use, incarceration, justice-involvement, food insecurity, and homelessness. Many of us have endured various types of trauma including marginalization and systemic oppression. Some of us have been denied our autonomy and the right to make our own choices, to make our own meaning.

I’ve worked alongside case workers, clinicians, psychiatrists and law enforcement while supporting community members during challenging moments. Providing basic yet fundamental human connection, building trust and understanding with each other. I have found that while building these connections there are still so many individuals that fall through the cracks of our systems. Being in community with people and building rapport is how we develop and maintain relationships. Peer support is a way of learning, exploring, and making meaning out of life’s challenges. Times of crisis are crucial points in someone’s life, opportunities to grow and transform. I have experienced and seen other services quickly make judgements and assumptions during these crucial moments – they label or lock up or shoot first and ask questions later.

At a time in my life where I was struggling to find hope, a friend shared this poem by Hafez with me that I wish to share with you all here today:

The Heart is right to cry.
Even when the smallest drop of light, of love, is taken away.
Perhaps you may kick, moan, scream in a dignified silence.
But you are so right to do so in any fashion,
until God returns to you.

There are moments in life where we struggle to make sense of what happened to us. Moments where things change and have an impact on how we see the world, like recent events where flooding wiped out thousands of homes and businesses. We need to make more time and hold space in order to be able to process these traumatic events. Perhaps that means kicking, moaning, and screaming in the middle of this room right now? Through this process we might find ways to rebuild which might look different than the way it did before. Just as we are coming out of those hard years of the pandemic and attempting to return to what normal life looked like, we are seeing that some things may never be as they were. Now is the time for us to find new ways of thinking and being.

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