Wesley Cutler has been involved with a range of different institutional services throughout his life. Placed in a group home at age 12, Wesley describes a subsequent decades-long cycle of involvement in programs and institutions, including incarceration. His experience made him reluctant to engage with people and services he saw as trying to label and diagnose him without connecting with him on a human level. But when he walked into his first meeting with CASES newSTART Case Coordinator Tonie Dreher, Wesley says something felt different.
“I walked into the CASES office,” he said, “already planning my escape route, and Tonie was there—and it was different. She was just herself. When you’ve been a client for a long time, you pick up the techniques [programs are] using on you. I get goose bumps to this day telling the story of that session, and I’ve been in treatment since I was eight years old.”
Tonie, who has her own lived experience in the criminal legal system and of achieving recovery in behavioral health treatment, implements a peer approach through which individuals with lived experience help others working toward recovery. This evidence-based approach includes providing direct support and mentorship, supporting goal setting and skill building, and modeling healthy relationships and positive community engagement. Peer Specialists also act as critical voice in program implementation, helping colleagues to understand client perspectives and have an insider’s expertise on the recovery process.
“Tonie was just different,” Wesley says of newSTART’s peer approach. “It was refreshing, it was engaging, it was intimidating. It was the unknown. It was unpredictable, unsuspecting, and it kept me coming back.”
As part of a workforce that includes clinicians, teachers, counselors, nurses, employment specialists, and many other expert staff, CASES employs Peer Specialists and other staff with lived experience, including involvement with the criminal legal system and/or engagement in mental health and/or substance use challenges. After three years engaged with newSTART services—during which he completed a certified Peer Training program—Wesley is now a member of the CASES team.
Now as a Peer Specialist himself, Wesley connects with newSTART clients and helps them address the everyday issues that can affect their journey to success. This is especially important during the pandemic, when many day-to-day needs are exacerbated by social distancing.
“The peer model is sweeping the nation. It works. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it didn’t,” Wesley said. “I’m not saying the clinical perspective doesn’t work. What I am saying is that if I’d met a peer sooner, maybe a clinician would’ve struck home with me sooner.”
Through his engagement in newSTART and now as a Peer Specialist, he says he’s come to discover that helping others deal with their needs is how he can continue to work on his.
“For some people, it’s so much easier to use metaphors to get them to understand something that they’ve been told forever without really understanding,” he says. “Imagine a tree. It’s big, full of leaves. It’s pretty. But then a storm comes by, and the branches looks like they were twisted. They’re still alive and hanging on, but they look like someone tried to twist them off. That’s how I see the issues people have. These issues can’t go away, they’re still a part of the person.”
From his own experience, Wesley knows how hard it might be to deal with those branches.
“A client can have a lot of these twisted branches. When the smoke clears, it’s not that bad—it’s life,” he said. “But because I myself have twisted branches, I get something out of engaging with them. I’m able to help them reframe the situation while reframing mine.”