Rebecca Hunnicutt: Work As Emotional Healing
By Clara B. Jones
I met Rebecca several years ago at Magnetic Minds, a local support group for persons with mood disorders (see Glossary). She was co-facilitator of the group, and it was obvious immediately that she embodied the qualities of a true leader. In coordination with the other co-facilitator, Rebecca was able to guide the group in a way that made all participants feel welcome, worthy, and hopeful. Rebecca was born and raised in Western North Carolina, thus, she brings a regional and personal perspective to issues related to mental health in this area. While researching this article, I learned that approximately 10,000 residents of Buncombe County utilized mental health services in 2010, including treatment for substance abuse, as well as hospitalization for psychiatric disorders. Rebecca and I recently met at a cafe in Asheville to discuss her path from crisis to wholeness, and I am pleased and honored that she agreed to share her story of ongoing recovery with me and with readers of WNC Woman.
Clara B. Jones: Welcome, Rebecca. You are a Peer Support Specialist (PSS). Can you tell us what that means?
Rebecca Hunnicutt: In 2007, I left my job in the real estate appraisal field, an event that triggered cycles of depression and mania. Between that time and 2009, I was treated by seven physicians, none of whom was able to diagnose my symptoms. The eighth doctor was a psychiatrist who recognized that I was suffering from bipolar disorder, and I was placed on medication that relieved most of my symptoms and began my process of recovery. It is interesting that, before my official diagnosis, my husband concluded that I exhibited bipolar symptoms. His concern for my well-being led him to conduct lengthy research online and to read the book, Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder (Julie A. Fast & John Preston, 2012, 2nd Edition, New Harbinger Pub.). But, of course, only a medical doctor is able to make a final diagnosis. Today, because of my experiences with recovery, treatment, and support, I work as a Peer Support Specialist sharing my specialized expertise with others on their own journey of recovery who struggle with mental health problems.
Clara B. Jones: At what point in your recovery did you decide to become a PSS?
Rebecca Hunnicutt: After I was stable for four years from the time of my diagnosis, I was comfortable with the fact that I could try something new and not worry about having a relapse. I had started thinking about taking PSS training in 2012, but the only course available at that time was in Boone, which just wouldn’t work for me for various reasons. At first, I was simply going to take the training, not even looking at making it a career. But, in January of 2013 I was told that, if I had the training already under my belt, I would be called in for an interview “right then and there.” It was at that point that I realized that I was in a very special position to start a new career in a field that interested me. During my years at college, I never knew what I wanted to go into. Nothing sparked a fire in me. So, becoming a PSS is everything I didn’t even know I wanted. I now have a career that I’m looking forward to working in until I retire.
What can a PSS offer a mentally ill client that a conventional counselor or psychiatrist cannot provide?
Lived experience! The PSS has “been there, done that,” and, with the client’s permission, can share what steps were taken on the PSS’s journey. Real life examples of what worked for one person could possibly provide some ideas of what might work for another.
What training is required to become a PSS?
You must go through a 40-hour Peer Support session and pass an exam based on course material approved by the State of North Carolina. An additional 20 hours of training in approved coursework related to job requirements are needed before becoming certified (e.g., courses in group processes, crisis management, or human development).
What entity certifies PSSs in North Carolina?
The NC Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services runs the North Carolina Peer Support Specialist Program which certifies PSSs in this state.
What personal characteristics make a person a good PSS?
Compassion, a need to help others who are struggling, empathy, ability to REALLY listen, flexibility to adapt to any situation, knowledge of your own recovery process, excellent problem-solving skills, and an ability to communicate effectively are necessary traits for effective peer support.
It is my understanding that you are a certified ©WRAP instructor. Can you tell us about that?
©WRAP stands for ©Wellness Recovery Action Plan, a treatment directive developed by Mary Ellen Copeland. ©WRAP provides a client with training to develop an individualized treatment plan, including planned, systematic responses or steps in an attempt to lessen or even prevent a crisis. The plan, also, serves as a directive when it is notarized. In combination with a state-approved PAD (Psychiatric Advance Directive), ©WRAP informs members of a support network and healthcare professionals about a client’s needs and preferences in case of emergency. A ©WRAP instructor is trained to facilitate a strictly evidence-based curriculum designed by ©The Copeland Center for Wellness and Recovery. The ©WRAP training program is a collaborative learning experience for all participants, is simple to use by anyone, and is continually adapting to each client’s recovery journey.
How can the public facilitate Peer Support Specialists?
RH: I can envision PSSs in all aspects of life (e.g., in schools and workplaces) offering assistance to those who are in different stages of their recovery. With all that is going on in the world today, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone employed in everyday jobs that had specialized skill sets to understand mental health concerns, relating to people with problems on their own level? In addition, let’s just dream that in this world there is no stigma to mental illness because PSSs are in the workforce everywhere, educating the public about the “in’s and out’s” of mental illness.
How can we obtain more information about mental health services in Western North Carolina?
In case of immediate crisis or emergency, always dial 911. Dial 211 to reach United Way’s great resource for casually finding out what is out there. Another way to get services is to contact Smoky Mountain Center’s Access Line, a Managed Care Organization (MCO) (1-800-849-6127).
How can readers contact you with questions about topics in this article?
The best way to contact me is through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because we have known each other for several years, I am aware that you have a very supportive family. How important is this support to your ongoing recovery and to your career?
My support network is essential to my continued recovery and includes my family and friends. Without this support I would never have made it through the dark times of my mental illness. Now that I’ve had an extended period of stability, I continue to need that support for growth in my new career in the mental health field. Recently, my son, a high-school Sophomore, said: “Mom has helped me through the struggles that I have had in my life, and I just wanted to give my unconditional support in her recovery journey.”
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story with us, Rebecca. You are an example to the WNC community of how challenges can be turned into strengths.
Bipolar Disorder: “a mental disorder marked by alternating periods of mania and depression”
Depression: severe despondency and dejection, often including feelings of low self-worth
Mania: mental illness exhibiting excitability, euphoric feelings, delusional thoughts, and hyperactivity
Mood Disorders: Depression and Bipolar Disorder
Selected Resources Suggested By RH:
Fast JA, Preston J (2006) Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder. Warner Wellness
Hanson R (2009) Buddha’s Brain. New Harbinger Publishers
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
Clara B. Jones is an academic. She can be contacted via e-mail, email@example.com. Clara is a non-traditional mother, grandmother, friend, and acquaintance whose grounding philosophy is Intentional Living.