One of the most exciting and innovative parts about the OnTrackNY program is that we have Peer Specialists working on our teams who have struggled with similar issues to the young people using our services. That means they’ve also been diagnosed with a mental illness and they’re doing well enough in their lives to hold down a job and work on a clinical team.
Peers Specialist who work at OnTrackNY help participants make sense of their experiences, become aware of their options, and ultimately increase their ability to make informed choices. But we also pro-vide a kind of connection and support to participants that is very hard for clinicians to provide in their roles: peer support. “Peer” means we are equal with the other person, we are not there to diagnose and clinically assess, we are not there to prescribe anything. Peer Specialists build relationships based on mutuality and reciprocity. Sometimes peer support is just about having another person to talk to who understands, but it can also mean having someone to help navigate the system and build connections with other team members.
Peer Specialists get to bring with them all of the tools they’ve learned to stay healthy, whether it’s through communication or exercise or healthy eating, or leading art or hip-hop groups. It’s so easy to feel alone in this world, especially when you’ve been told you have a “mental illness”. Knowing there are lots of other people who have struggled like you struggle and are living their dreams is incredibly powerful. And there are networks of peers all over the country. The peer role is very creative innovation that shapes the culture of our teams. Having someone sitting at the table with the other team members who’s experienced the hardship of diagnosis and navigating the system themselves brings a lot to the culture of the team.
The best people to be Peer Specialists on OnTrackNY teams are people who’ve been through the OnTrackNY program them-selves. Have you been through OnTrackNY as a participant? Are you interested in being a Peer Specialist. Let us know…
Sascha Altman DuBrul
Recovery Specialist and Trainer
As you may know, over the last year, we have created a series of short films in which OnTrackNY participants tell their stories. You can find these videos on our OnTrackNY website at: ontrackny.org/videos. We would like to take this opportunity to ex-plain a bit more about the purpose of these films, as well as the process of creating them.
These films are intended to give participants an opportunity to share their stories and create inspiring, stigma reducing content about psychosis. Additionally, these films serve to educate the public, and prospective clients about the OnTrackNY program.
The first step in creating these videos was to identify interested participants. Our OnTrackNY Youth Coordinators worked to identify participants for these films, set up a filming schedule that worked for the participant and our videographer, and then complete our media consent form with everyone that would be taking part in the film. At the start of each film, we would establish a comfortable atmosphere between our videographer, the featured participant, and ourselves (youth coordinators).
Before any formal interview-questions were presented, it was important to first hear the participant’s story, unfiltered and unprompted—not every story of recovery fits the same mold, or follows the same trajectory and it was important that our interview questions complimented that story, rather than try to box it in to fit a more idealistic version of recovery. Throughout the film-making process, creating an atmosphere and set of interview questions that best fostered authentic storytelling, and true youth-voice was of high priority.
Participants told of challenges and hardships as well as successes during their recovery. Family members were able to share how the entire family is affected when a loved one struggles with psychosis, but also the new perspectives and understandings they were able to gain by experiencing mental health concerns so personally, and through the lens of a loved one.
All of our films were shot over the course of one full day, with a mixture of formal interview footage, and more candid moments where participants could showcase personal belongings and mementos. We encouraged participants to bring objects or photographs that represented not only recovery, but also them as a person outside of their diagnosis. If a participant felt their identity was more rooted in their diagnosis then we focused on that, if they felt more connected to other aspects of themselves such as a passion for art, music or advocacy we made sure to highlight that in the film. Everyone’s experience with mental health is different, as is their connection or lack thereof to their diagnosis.
The final step in the film-making process was the editing phase. Editing for each film took several weeks. On average, about 10 iterations of each film were created before a final product was achieved. It was important for us to review the films in great detail as to ensure that nothing about these films was overdramatized or misrepresented. Having a film-making team comprised of youth coordinators and a videographer all with their own lived experience helped to create films that we feel put the preservation of youth voice at the front and center.
We now have a total of 4 completed films. A fifth participant film is nearing completion, as well a video featuring one of our OnTrackNY teams. If you are interested in participating in one of our films, please reach out to us at: email@example.com.
Recently, we have been sharing videos to the OnTrackNY Facebook page created by a young woman named Lauren who lives with schizoaffective disorder. Interested in Lauren’s story, and what inspired her to create videos discussing her experiences, we decided to interview Lauren about her recovery journey, her YouTube channel, and her interests in the mental health field. Check it out:
Q: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
A: My name is Lauren. I am from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I have my Bachelor of Arts as well as my Bachelor of Social Work. I’ve worked several years as a social worker, and just recently, this fall, went back to school to get my Masters of Science in Health Policy Research.
Q: Are you working while in school, and if so, what type of work do you do?
A: Yes. I am working as a research assistant right now in the school of Public Health. We are doing research on non-communicable diseases for indigenous populations, primarily. I will be coming out with a mental health initiative from that, kind of tying in the mental health piece.
Q: Let’s talk about your recovery journey-- when did you first start experiencing symptoms?
A: So, I didn’t really recognize them as symptoms at the time, but in hindsight, I think the symptoms started when I was in high school. I had a lot of negative symptoms. I withdrew a lot. I had a lack of inter-est in things I used to have interest in. It came across more like de-pression. And I also began to experience thought broadcasting in high school, so I thought that other people could hear my thoughts. I dealt with what I thought was depression for several years. I was diagnosed with depression by a family physi-cian. Then, when I went to school to get my Bachelor of Arts and then my Bachelor of Social Work things kind of went sideways for me. It got to the point where I was thinking about taking my life, and it came to a point where I did try to do that. But I sought out help from a counselor and I got connected with a psychiatrist. They were really pivotal in getting me the help that I needed. My psychiatrist and I tried several medications to try and reduce the symptoms I was having. Then, things stabilized for a while and I was able to return to school fulltime. But, shortly after I experienced my first psychotic episode at the age of 24. I started to hallucinate regularly. I was hearing voices and I was hearing and seeing helicopters circling overhead. I was fairly manic at the time as well, and had a delusion that the doctors were trying to use the medications for mind control. I ended up in the hospital and had a scary ordeal with a hallu-cination. My diagnosis was changed to bipolar disorder with psychotic features. Which, again, was another misdiagnosis. Things kind of stabilized after that with medication and I was able to graduate that spring, and landed my dream job. So, I made the move to Toronto, to begin my career there. That didn’t really go great because I was still strug-gling with hallucinations and delusions. I made the difficult decision to move home to be closer to family. At this point, things were on a bit of a downward spin, and I had my second psychotic episode. I was 25 at the time. I end-ed up in the hospital for a month this time. Finally, I stabilized in hospital, agreed to medications, and they discharged me. That was when I began to grapple with the internalized stigma of my mental illness. I was so afraid of what people would think if they found out what was going on with me. I was afraid I would never hold a stable job. Through personal reflection, and work around self-acceptance, I accepted my diagnosis and I accepted that it was a part of me, but didn’t define me. That’s kind of where I am today.
Q: What services are available in Canada for those experiencing First Episode Psychosis (FEP)?
A: It varies a lot depending on where you are in Canada; there’s no standardized form of care for it. Typically, the large urban areas have an FEP program for people. I wasn’t connected with this for my first psychotic episode, I’m not really sure why. I wish that there was more integration between services. I wish that I had been connected by the hospital that I was in to an FEP program. I just wish there was more collaboration between the services that are provided and just better awareness about what exactly is out there as well.
Q: You recently started a YouTube Channel. What drew you to create your YouTube series?
A: I’ve always kind of been a mental health advocate within my own social circle and at school, so it just felt like a natural fit to voice my experiences to help other people. When I was first going through all of this, I did look to YouTube and I looked to the internet, just for some sort of help or some sort of example of something that I was going through, and something to relate to. So, I just wanted to create this for people who are newly diagnosed and look for this, or people who are living with the illness. And, also for their loved ones who just want to learn more about it.
Q: Tell us about your experience thus far creating these YouTube videos. What has the response been like?
A: I remember the first comment I got that was kind of along the lines of that I had helped them to feel less alone in their struggle. Just get-ting that one comment made it all worth it.
Q: What advice do you have for someone experiencing FEP?
A: Don’t be afraid to show yourself love and compassion and to come at it from a place of self-acceptance. It’s hard to keep thinking of your-self as the individual you were before the diagnosis or before the ill-ness, but you still are that individual, you just also have a mental illness but it doesn’t define you. Also, I would advise anyone to advocate for themselves in terms of receiving care. Don’t be afraid to seek out med-ical treatment until you’re satisfied, because so many times I’ve seen people slip through the cracks of the medical system. So, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself or find a loved one to help you.
You can find Lauren’s YouTube channel by going to:
Spring has sprung! As we approach the season of growth, we are excited to share our new quarterly newsletter! This letter features an interview with Lauren, a woman living with schizoaffective disorder, and sharing her experience on YouTube. Our Youth Coordinators are also sharing a bit more about how our participant recovery videos are created. also, check out our story about the peer specialist role in OnTrackNY written by our very own Recovery Specialist and Trasiner, Sascha DuBrul.
Click on the title of this post for a downloadable version of the newsletter
Happy New Year! In this month’s newsletter, we are announcing our new On-TrackNY Family Council. We are very excited about this group, so please check out the story below, and spread the word! We are also including some tips and tricks on journaling to keep track of goals and mental health heading into the new year. Our last story is about a Toronto- based singer-songwriter living with schizophrenia.
Click on the title of this post for a downloadable version of the newsletter.