C4 Innovations

Recovery and Resilience: Sharing Our Wisdom–Lived Experience & COVID-19 with Ronda Speight and Ana Florence

An episode of the “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Ronda Speight and Ana Florence discuss peer support and how sharing lived experiences can support others with host Katie Volk. This episode is sponsored by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network (MHTTC).

September 14, 2020


Erika Simon, Producer: [00:01] Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. Before we get started with our new episode, we want to acknowledge that, as our communities respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, this is a difficult time for everyone, especially for people who are marginalized and those providing health and human services. We are deeply thankful to all the health and human service providers and community leaders who are working tirelessly to keep people safe and well and to help folks who are sick to recover. We appreciate you beyond measure.

Erika: [00:33] We are sharing some COVID-19 related resources for supporting people experiencing challenges with substance use, mental health, recovery, homelessness, and housing, on our webpage at c4innvates.com/news. And on our social media channels on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Please email us at info@c4innovates.com if we can support you or your programs in any way. All of us at C4 wish health and strength to you, your families and friends, and the people you work with.


Katie Volk, Host: [1:10] Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Katie Volk. Today’s podcast is sponsored by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center. Today, we are joined by two guests from a project called Sharing our Wisdom: Lived Experience and COVID-19, which focuses on mental health, social justice, equity, COVID-19, and a lot more. Our guests all have lived experience with mental health challenges and will share what they have learned in their journey, and what has helped them in these difficult times. Our topic today is the power of peer support in promoting resilience and recovery. My guests are Rhonda Speight and Ana Florence. Rhonda or Ro is a human rights advocate in the psychiatric community and works as a mental health peer specialist and recovery advocate at the Mental Health Association of Westchester in Westchester County, New York. She is also a trained facilitator and coach trainer for peer supported, open dialogue. Ro, Welcome. It’s so good to have you here today.

Ronda “Ro” Speight, Guest: [2:11] Hi Katie. Thanks for having me.

Katie: [2:13] We’re also joined by Ana Florence, who is a clinical psychologist from Brazil and a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health. Ana leads the Wisdom Project. Ana, welcome, it’s so good to have you here today.

Ana Florence, Guest: [2:29] Thanks. So happy to be here.

Katie: [2:30] Ana, I’m wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about what led to the creation of the Wisdom Project.

Ana: [2:36] I was doing different types of research at the time that COVID started. And as soon as the pandemic hit, it just occurred to me that whatever I was doing wasn’t making much sense anymore. And that in fact, my research work that I was always focused on, on lived experience with mental health challenges, could play a role in how this pandemic is unfolding. So the initial and very simple idea is that people may now be experiencing some feelings, emotions that they never experienced before, but that people who have had mental health challenges in the past are very used to, such as fear, paranoia, isolation. And so I just felt that this might be perhaps a very good moment for us to start paying attention to the type of wisdom that people accrue by their experience and journey of recovery. And so basically that’s what led to the Wisdom Project. And we’re doing this series of podcasts and a series of webinars where we invite people with lived experience to share their views and how they think that their experiences of recovery may inform how we all can understand and go through this pandemic together.

Katie: [4:00] One of the features of the Wisdom Project is that you all interview one another, which I think is such a unique way of telling a story. And so to that end, we have with us Ro Speight, and you and Ro are going to have a conversation.

Ana: [4:17] That’s right Katie, thank you so much. Ro, it’s such a pleasure to have you here with us today. I was wondering since this project really started with the idea that people who have lived experience with mental health challenges and with recovery have something unique to offer in this moment. And you with your work and your history are very aware of that. And your work as a peer is already a way of using your own lived experience doing mental health care. So I was wondering how did you become a peer in the first place?

Ro: [4:59] I think for everyone, this has been very challenging and a very difficult time. I guess, speaking of challenges and going through difficult times, I got into peer specialist work through having a hospitalization already. And it’s kind of like a New York story, actually, it’s my warped New York story. I moved to New York and continued to have some challenges. And so I actually had a hospitalization and then joined the Parachute Program in New York through a hospitalization and a referral. So that really was my first introduction to meeting up here. Parachute is a program for individuals who are experiencing what in the peer communities is called extreme states, but really anything on the psychosis spectrum and things like that. I also had a formal week through their respite program, engaging with peers, and I just thought they were amazing individuals.

Ro: [6:13] I had never seen wellness role models in such a way. I had never seen engagement facilitated in such a way. And basically the respite there was just a week where you didn’t have to be hospitalized. You could stay in your own personal space and go through whatever you were going through with peer support. And it was 24 hours, and I stayed a week. So that really was like my initial engagement and introduction to what peers were doing. Unfortunately, I had to move back in with my parents and left Parachute Program. So, unfortunately, it enlightened me, and then I had to leave it.

Ana: [7:04] I’m listening to you and your experience with Parachute and your first experience with peers. And I wonder what about that experience of having someone, part of your treatment team, sharing their lived experience with you that got you interested in this work?

Ro: [7:25] Yeah, it was amazing. When I went to the respite, it was all peers, and I really got immersed in spending a lot of time with them. And I was able to have really what were new conversations with people who have lived experience. I really was able to hear some of their reflections on what got them through some difficult times. I know I was at the midst of a really difficult time and went to the respite instead of a hospitalization. So talking with them and having meaningful conversations and hearing not only hope but seeing it in the way that they were behaving and the confidence that they had, that just stayed with me. And it really just left an imprint on the, wow, this is something different that I hadn’t previously experienced throughout my therapeutic journey.

Ana: [8:35] That makes a lot of sense, Ro, and that’s such an inspiring story that you actually became acquainted with peer work by receiving those services yourself. I wonder when did it happen for you that you decided yourself to become a peer?

Ro: [8:53] For me personally, after experiencing the Parachute program, I actually didn’t really directly get interested and involved until I was in an outpatient program after Parachute. Which was far more traditional, far more archaic in my opinion, very typical medical model type of framework, but I had a great therapist, and she knew about MHA, the Mental Health Association, peer training. And she suggested that that would be a great direction for me to go after this outpatient stint. So, I actually was very ambivalent. I was not eager to share my story. Even though I had experienced peer support, it didn’t really click for me. So after leaving this outpatient program, I looked into it, and I still was hesitant. And then I finally, after a couple months, enrolled into the peer training at the Mental Health Association of Westchester.

Ana: [10:05] That’s amazing, Ro, and it’s also, I also think it’s interesting that you got to see two different programs and that you can make that distinction of very interesting and progressive type of way of working with respites that are run by peers and a lot of peer involvement and the care and then what you call the more medical model outpatient setting. So it looks like you’re in a good position to assess these things side by side. So that’s very interesting. Now that you’ve become a peer worker, and we’re living through these very challenging times together with the whole COVID pandemic, I was thinking if you could think of things on your recovery journey and your work as a peer that you find helpful, or that can help inform others about how we can be dealing with this whole pandemic.

Ro: [11:04] Thought about that question quite a bit. And I’ve had conversations with fellow peers about how it has been for us. And honestly, I don’t really feel compelled to separate how peers are experiencing this COVID crisis differently. To me, it’s been such a humanizing thing that even if you have had some psychiatric background and have been hospitalized and have been maybe even oppressed in those types of settings, this is just a whole another level of a global crisis. And I think everyone is experiencing something in a new way. Even those of us who have been hospitalized, who have been through the psychiatric system, I don’t think it gives us any kind of leg up on anything. I think it offers an opportunity to reflect maybe a little bit more deeply on some of our experiences and really recognize maybe the humanizing factor and how we’re really not so different than everyone else. And change that narrative that, oh, you’re a person with psychiatric history so obviously you’re a different person. I think everyone is a little bit more equal and that’s my perspective.

Ana: [12:47] That’s wonderful Ro, I’m glad you brought that up. I think you’ve touched on a very important point, which is this idea that there is an “us and them,” that is separated by a set of life experiences. And I really like your position of trying to push the envelope so that that distinction starts going away. And that we start to think about what you call the more human experience of everything. And I think you bring an important point that everyone is experiencing something different now, I really love you saying that, and I completely agree with you. Although on the other hand, we should acknowledge that different groups are being affected differently by this pandemic. More specifically, I’d say that Latinos such as myself and persons of color are really being disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that, what’s your personal perspective on the issue of these disparities that are becoming more and more evident with this pandemic?

Ro: [14:04] You know, Ana, I also think about that a lot during this time, on the one hand, there definitely is disparity socioeconomically. I feel like that is the most dominant disparity is those individuals who don’t have access to resources, who typically are minorities or people of color. For me personally, I have to admit, I have not had similar struggles, even though I do identify as a person of color, I come from a rather middle class background, and I’m very fortunate for that. So I’m looking at this experience of disparities saying, what’s the deeper question here, because if it’s a socioeconomic issue that even crosses color lines and racial lines. So for me, it’s about, yes, there are definite disparities, but one, those disparities have existed previously to the COVID crisis. And then even just because you’re a person of color doesn’t mean that you’re experiencing the absolute, most horrible disparities. You know what I mean? Like I said, I come from a middle class background. I might not be experiencing the same difficulties as someone else of color who comes from a different socioeconomic background. So I don’t think blanketed questions that our society tends to want to have is always where the fruit of the answer is.

Ana: [15:54] Thanks, Ro, I think you bring our attention to how complex these issues are and how we as individuals play so many different roles in our lives and identify with so many different things, I guess, and how for each person that plays out very differently. So thank you for bringing that to our attention. And we’re sharing a little bit about your story as well. I wonder how this pandemic has affected your work as a peer and how do you think your views as the places that you do occupy in the world are shaping your work with folks in these challenging and difficult times?

Ro: [16:43] I mean specifically how COVID has impacted the way that I work. I mean, definitely working remotely has been super challenging, just trying to translate skills sets, trying to engage, trying to stay connected. All of those things haven’t really necessarily translated very well for me virtually. So it’s been difficult, but at the same time, and once again, I think there’s two different sides of my answer. I think it’s an opportunity to maybe reach people who couldn’t necessarily come to a specific place or have transportation. So it kind of equalizes those disparities, but reflecting back on social economic disparities, not everyone has technology, not everyone has access to virtual platforms or knows how to navigate those platforms. So I still feel like there’s a huge gap in the communities that I have worked with, which are very broad.

Ro: [18:06] I currently live in Westchester, New York, and I work in Westchester, New York. And within that county, there’s very impoverished communities and there’s ultra wealthy communities and everything in between. So I think working in such a diverse community and county really gives me a whole bunch of experience with everyone.

Ana: [18:38] That’s great, Ro. It looks like you have, your experience working gives you a good overview of what’s happening across different socioeconomic statuses and across a different range of those problems or challenges or difficulties that people might be experiencing. So thank you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

Ro: [19:02] Thank you Ana. I truly appreciate it.

Katie: [19:05] And I just want to chime in here to say it’s been very interesting to listen to the conversation. And I’m wondering as you think about your work, where do you see points of resilience in the peer work that you’re doing?

Ro: [19:20] Well, I definitely think the resilience comes from being open to change. Also, finding that human factor, which I’m always about, is how can we grasp onto our humanity and make it through very difficult and challenging situations from that vantage point. That we’re not isolated and alone in our stories, that we’re part of a larger whole. And I think that’s what often has given me hope through a lot of my difficulties, is understanding that it’s not just an individual Ro situation, that I’m connected to a larger community in humanity.

Katie: [20:09] Same, I think even in a place and time and country right now, where things can feel so divisive. I do see so much that we have in common across the experiences that I’ve had during the pandemic and those of the other guests we’ve had on the podcasts. And certainly listening to your story that stands out to me too, that there is so much more that unites us rather than divides us, which may sound cliche, but I really do believe that it’s true. I also think one of the other things that I heard in your conversation is that there’s no simple answer to any of this. And that we have to dig deeper and take time to reflect and really examine the issues that we’re talking about around mental health and stigma and recovery and socioeconomic status and things like that. And hopefully we can all take time to be able to do that.

Ro: [21:05] Yes, Katie, I totally agree. Like I said, if anything that I’ve really have learned through my recovery process, in just my growing and development process, is that there is a lot more to everyone. And that’s what I see is the work that I do as a peer specialist, is that each person is a unique individual that’s living in a culture or a society that’s dealing with often systemic and social economic and social cultural issues.

Katie: [21:41] Certainly. Well, Ro and Ana, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today.

Ro: [21:47] Thanks for having me.

Ana: [21:48] Thank you so much. This was a wonderful conversation today.

Katie: [21:51] And to our listeners. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika: [21:55] Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, New England MHTTC, and was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Our host for this series is Katie Volk. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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