Janice Benford is a Recovery Support Specialist — commonly referred to as a Peer Mentor — at Metropolitan’s Southeast Chicago Center. On Sept. 21, 2016, she spoke at a Mental Health America of Illinois luncheon about the Recovery Model, the basis for our adult mental health services. The person-centered model fosters productive, independent living in the community and helps each person experience positive change.
My name is Janice Benford. I have been a certified Recovery Support Specialist in the Adult Mental Health Program at Metropolitan Family Services Southeast Chicago Center since 2010. I am also known as a Peer Mentor and run the Consumer Advisory Council.
Recovery Support Specialists are people with a personal experience of recovery from mental health, substance use, or trauma conditions who receive specialized training and supervision to guide and support others who are experiencing similar mental health, substance use or trauma issues toward increased wellness.
I personally know about the Recovery Model in mental health. I am both one of its success stories and am a part of the model as it helps others. I serve as a role model to consumers, as someone who has been in their shoes. I give them an opportunity to see someone who is further along in their recovery.
I know first hand about mental illness, its challenges, its stigma and the welcome feeling of recovery. In 2002, I lost my job. In 2005, my mother died from colon cancer, and I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. After chemotherapy my cancer went into remission but it came back in 2009, spreading to my lungs. I received chemotherapy alongside my sister, who also suffered from cancer, and I had a successful surgery to remove my cancer. My sister was not so lucky.
To be bombarded with one life-altering crisis after another was too much for me to bear.
I began experiencing symptoms of depression in 2005. I entered into a mental health program through the Community Mental Health Center in Chicago. Eventually, I connected with Metropolitan Family Services in 2010 because my case manager suggested I would make a good peer mentor.
I went through formal training at Metropolitan, and I took classes and secured certification through the Online Recovery Academy, which is part of the Illinois Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health. Now I use my experiences to help others who face similar challenges. It gives me a good feeling to know that I am helping people who are in need.
I tell them I know what they’re feeling, because I do. I’ve been there. I understand. I tell them, “You may see yourself as a schizophrenic, but I see you as a smart, creative person.” That’s the person-first approach of the Recovery Model at work.
I am the greeter at Metropolitan’s Adult Mental Health Program at the Southeast Chicago Center. I see people when they first come into the office and I often notice that they are struggling. I conduct their orientation into the program and talk about what will happen, what they should expect. It’s a new experience that can be scary.
I also operate a group, Crochet as a Coping Tool. We meet every month. I have been running the group since 2014. It’s very popular among the consumers at the center. The crochet group offers its members a chance to get out of their isolation and come together to take part in a calming, focused activity with people who may be experiencing things similar to them.
There is one woman who comes to my group every week. Before the crochet group, she didn’t even want to leave her house. Now she has made a friend through the group and they go do things together. They help each other. The group helped them reach out and find their own support network – that’s another objective of the Recovery Model. Another woman started a crochet group in the basement at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Chicago. It makes me proud to know that the group I started can reach even more people. How great would it be if another group grew from that one and the network of help just kept growing?!
The shame and the stigma of being diagnosed with a mental illness was difficult for me. I would rather tell someone I was diagnosed with cancer than to say I had a mental illness.
At times, I meet with consumers in the mental health program one-on-one. We’ll talk. Or sometimes they just need someone to listen. I also teach them calming breathing techniques or other coping skills. Sometimes, if someone has stopped coming to their therapy visits, the therapist asks me to reach out to them. I will give them a call and ask them if everything is OK or if there is anything I can help them with. Often I’m like their big sister. I also meet with them off site. I remember one woman who didn’t like to come into the office. She preferred to go out walking. That’s when she really opened up and started talking. So we would walk and talk.
My work requires me to meet with people who are successfully transitioning out of the program. A lot of times they have anxiety about returning to life on their own. They think, “What will I do next? Where will I go?” I assist them by linking them up with resources they can turn to if they need help. The goal is to make them comfortable functioning in society.
I was afraid to tell my family I was taking medication for depression. Talking about the chemo, I could do that. But tell them I was taking antidepressants, I couldn’t do that. I would pretend I was OK. I would try to fake it. Emotionally it was difficult because my family didn’t know what to say to me. Later, my brother told me he knew something was up with me but didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
The reaction of most people who knew me was, “Janice is not that kind of person. She’s strong, independent. She could handle the tough stuff.” At the time, it created a lot of family discord.
As the Recovery Support Specialist, my role also involves outreach to a variety of agencies. I was asked to speak at a women’s homeless shelter, which was located close to our agency. I shared with these women my lived experiences with mental illness and encouraged these women to use mental health resources available for them at Metropolitan Family Services’ Southeast Chicago Center.
As the Recovery Support Specialist I also was given the task of forming a Consumer Advisory Council at the Southeast Chicago Center; I have been in charge of this group for 4 years now. This is a group of clients who volunteer their time to encourage, model recovery and be supportive towards their peers, serving as on-site ambassadors within the Adult Mental Health program.
People mark milestones of when they beat their cancer, or overcame other challenges. But what do you celebrate when you successfully move beyond your mental illness?
One of the biggest things that helped me in my recovery was working with people who also were diagnosed with mental illness. During my recovery, I kept myself focused by keeping a journal where I wrote down my goals. One of my goals was to be working in Metropolitan’s Adult Mental Health program. And here I am. And as of August 2016, I’m 7-years cancer free. Everything that happened to me led me to here. And I’m proud to be where I am right now.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story and my passion for assisting others on the path to recovery.