Peer Mentors

Reintegrating into the community from a correctional environment comes with many challenges. Among them is the rise of unintentional overdose deaths.

According to an Ontario-based study mentioned in this Globe and Mail article, people being released from prison are over 56 times more likely to die from an overdose within the first two weeks of transitioning back to the community than the general population.

In British Columbia, we see similar trends.

Over a 19-month period in 2016-17, 333 people died of an overdose within 30 days of release from a BC correctional facility. Over that same timeframe, 1124 people that died of an overdose had criminal justice involvement in BC at some time in their lives or were under current supervision. That’s 66% of people that died, according to this review.

This public health emergency is inextricably linked with the opioid crisis. Seeing a need for new and innovative approaches to reduce the number of these preventable deaths, Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) came to us to collaborate on a solution.

Here’s where our Peer Mentor Services comes in: a program that is exploring a level of ‘systems-undoing’ in order to disrupt the opioid crisis among formerly incarcerated people.

What I do has become all about saving lives.”

– David, one of our Peer Mentors

“We are taught to support people but rarely do the teachings come from people who have lived those experiences” says Teddy Chan, our Senior Manager of New Program Initiatives who oversees the Peers.

As the name of the program may suggest, the role of the Peer Mentor is key to the program’s success.

Peers are people who have lived experience with the criminal justice system and the challenges that come with reintegrating into the community with an addiction. Not only that, but they are driven by our organization’s core values, are open-minded, and are committed to working in and contributing to the social services.

We had the opportunity to sit down with one of our Peer Mentors, David, to learn more about his experience assisting people with addictions reintegrate into the community.

David is one of our longest standing Peers, having started with us since the program began in the spring of 2019. He works in collaboration with PHSA and their Community Transition Team.

As a Peer, David has been personally impacted by the criminal justice system and by addictions. “I’ve spent almost 55 years in prison. I’m 71 now” he says. Fast forward to the present, David is coming up on eight years sober, is happily married to a supportive wife, has stepchildren and grandchildren, and is making lasting positive impacts in his community.

David says, “it’s important for people to have hope, especially for people who feel trapped. For me it became the life I loved to hate. I never liked prison, but it was all I knew. There’s nobody to actually say, ‘Look, I’ve been where you are, this is where I am now, this is how I got here.’”

David and the Peer Mentor program are changing that by connecting people transitioning to the community on opioid agonist therapy (alternatively referred to as opioid replacement therapy) with a peer that’s been through it before, and is succeeding. Once connected, the mentor offers a wide range of support to the mentee.

“My favourite part about being a Peer Mentor is doing the right thing. Knowing that what I’ve done is the best I can do for that person. It’s good to know that at the end of the day I’ve done my best to help another human… For all I know, the person I help could be doing what I’m doing in ten years… Once the seed’s been planted, it’s out of my hands.”

For David, getting to a point in his recovery that he could assist others as a Peer took time. “I had to change the whole way I looked at life, alcohol, crime, drugs. All of it. For me, it was a process. I didn’t just wake up one morning, I had to unlearn a lot of thinking errors.”

Now, David along with other Peers across BC have supported 98 people in their recovery and community reintegration since June 2019.

Peer Mentors are able to build relationships which can support people in a way that traditional service delivery doesn’t allow and bridges the gap bet ween a clinical understanding, or misunderstanding, of what people are going through.

We are so grateful for the opportunity to work with people like David. People who are committed to using a person-centered approach to assisting vulnerable community members. People who offer genuinely supportive services to people experiencing complex barriers, and people who are determined to create a safe, healthy, and inclusive community for all.

Doing the Peer Mentor program, I kind of look at it as my own success story… I would’ve never thought that I would be working with these people, and be happily married… I’m content.”
– David

This post is a part of a featured series celebrating John Howard Society Week 2020, an annual campaign that spreads awareness of the incredible work being carried out by John Howard Societies across Canada. To learn more about the JHS across the country, click here.