Empowerment Through Peer Support
Saras Yerlig’s passion for her work is unmistakable when you meet her. As one of 49 Peer Support Specialists with Maine Behavioral Healthcare, she builds mutual relationships with people who have similar “lived experience” with behavioral health or substance use issues. Because of their firsthand experience peers bring a unique perspective to treatment and have become an important component throughout the services managed by Maine Behavioral Healthcare.
Yerlig’s role is unique, in that she is embedded in the Portland Identification and Early Referral (PIER) Program at Maine Medical Center’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The PIER Program is a treatment team made up of social workers, psychiatrist, educational/vocational specialist, care manager and a peer support partner dedicated to helping 14-26 year olds with early symptoms of psychosis.
“We are all in this together,” Yerlig said. “I have navigated the system, so I’m able to approach people with intent and understanding around this life interrupting experience.”
And that approach allows Yerlig the opportunity to build strong connections with the young population she serves. When individuals enter the PIER Program, they are struggling with a significant mental health emergency. By actively listening, developing an understanding of individual perspectives, and encouraging people to look forward and think long term, Yerlig fosters a means for people to feel heard and part of a community.
“Peer support is much different than therapy,” Yerlig explained. “It’s not clinical – we don’t sit in an office or clinical setting. I meet people where they want to meet. We go for walks, we meet at greenhouses, coffee shops, the animal shelter or the library. And we don’t always talk about a diagnosis or clinical issue. It’s a natural mutual relationship and you talk about what’s on your mind at that moment, like any friends would.”
Aside from individual meetings, Yerlig facilitates several groups, including a family group that encourages a more supportive environment for people by reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and build on a sense of community. Participants in the PIER program typically work with a Peer Support worker like Yerlig for one to two years.
Working with Peer Support is voluntary, so there is no weekly requirements to meet. It’s an organic process that Yerlig lets her participants drive. While she will send texts to check in, she doesn’t inundate people with plans and suggestions – she simply lets the process happen.
“Saras' thoughtfulness, kindness, and insightfulness allows for truly transformative moments with the youth and young adults with whom she meets,” said Director of Peer Services Randy Morrison. “Her care and dedication for the youth she works with is remarkable and so greatly appreciated.”
Yerlig has only been a peer support worker for a year, however she’s already working hard to build a broader community, starting up a speaker’s bureau to bring her voice to community groups and events.
“Over the last year, Saras has organized and led a number of community activity groups - from rock climbing to beach trips to game days at the Portland Public Market - which have offered youth the opportunity to build that community, which can be so critical to overall wellness and resiliency,” Morrison said. “Without Saras' dedication and innate skills, these opportunities wouldn't exist.”
“I just want people to know it’s possible to come out on the other side,” Yerlig said. “No one should be afraid to speak up and say they’re hearing voices, seeing visions or having frightening thoughts. I want people to be empowered by being open, being present and breaking the stigma.”