Recovery programs office staffer CiCi Spencer praises the work of community members as instrumental to the creation of a peer recovery center for people with mental health and substance abuse issues at the Merrifield Center.

Seeing a therapist can be an intimidating experience for anyone, but particularly for someone struggling with serious mental health problems. There’s an inherent distance between patient and doctor, and not everyone feels comfortable disclosing personal thoughts and details to a stranger in such a formal setting.

That’s why the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (CSB), which helps people with mental illnesses, substance abuse disorders or intellectual disabilities, launched a peer resource center out of its Merrifield Center in Fairfax last October.

Staffed entirely by people who have experienced mental health or addiction struggles, the peer resource center is intended to supplement professional help and offers a variety of services, from referrals and support groups to employment assistance and even an arts group.

“There’s hope here,” a peer resource center guest identified as Sue said at the center’s grand opening on Mar. 30. “They helped me so much with my recovery…and it’s a safe place to me.”

Sue is one of hundreds of people who have taken advantage of the center’s services since it opened its doors on Oct. 7.

According to peer resource center director CW Tillman, the center had around 200 guests, which is the preferred term over clients or patients, in its first month of operation. That number grew to 550 guests in February, and the center was on track to serve more than 700 people in March as of Mar. 30.

After forming an advisory committee to determine what services and support systems the center would include, the CSB set up the peer resource center and hired staff through its Office of Consumer and Family Affairs (OCFA), which promotes inclusion and ensures that the voices and interests of CSB clients are considered when it comes to policy decisions.

Tillman initially become involved with the center to provide technical support and assistance, and he was named director after it opened.

Like the center’s other staff and volunteers, he is also in recovery himself and can testify firsthand to the importance of having a network of peers to provide guidance and support when dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues.

“It’s really about the mutuality and shared experience that you have, because people are willing to open up when they know that you have the same experiences that they do,” Tillman said. “We’re actually able to share our own experiences of how we’ve been through the same situation and things that we’ve tried to get ourselves through it.”

Individual and group peer support sessions, including a general group called Tranquil Voices and groups specifically for men and women, form the basis of the peer resource center, but peer support specialists also help guests form recovery action plans, develop advance directives that lay out mental and physical health care decisions, and navigate the CSB system as a whole.

People can also use the peer resource center, which is open every weekday to all members of the public, for assistance in applying for benefits like food stamps, financial and debt management, and employment services.

Peer resource center and CSB staffers say that the center has been a success so far and hope to continue expanding it in the future. CSB director Tisha Deeghan predicts that the center will welcome 1,000 guests in April, and it could potentially move to a separate, standalone location once it outgrows the space at the Merrifield Center.

The center plans to add several new programs soon, including meditation and mindfulness classes, Alcoholics Anonymous groups, National Alliance on Mental Illness peer-to-peer workshops, and online training for Microsoft programs.

Ultimately, the most rewarding part of supporting the peer resource center for peer support specialists and general CSB workers alike is seeing how their work helps the center’s guests with mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders.

“In a hospital setting, they see people in crisis. They see people at their worst,” Tillman said. “I’m sure that, day to day, that can really wear on somebody, but we’re lucky enough that we get to see every day the changes and improvements in folks’ lives.”

Falls Church resident Jullie Calkins is proof of the peer resource center’s effectiveness.

Calkins is an addict and also has a mental health diagnosis. She was already using CSB treatment services when she started visiting the center about three months ago, but she says that the center’s peer support services have now become the most crucial element of her recovery and wellness plan.

In addition to still seeing a psychiatrist and addiction counselor through the CSB, Calkins speaks to a peer counselor and attends the center’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) workshops, which introduce people to self-help tools and resources. She also participates in the center’s creative arts group.

As a visual artist, Calkins was initially skeptical of the arts group, but she warmed up to the exercise once she started engaging in the group’s crafts, which range from coloring to collages, anything that allows participants to express themselves.

Now, Calkins says that the arts group is one of her favorite activities, and she comes to the center almost every day, even if it’s just to get a cup of coffee or so that she doesn’t have to be alone.

“The stigma isn’t here. It’s a place where I can be honest about how I feel and what’s going on,” Calkins said. “Sometimes, I’ve come in and all I can do is cry, and somebody’s just going to be very kind and sit down and talk.”

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