Q.A. with Deborah Delman: Celebrations of Change

An interview with Deborah Delman, Executive Director of a peer-oriented recovery center called The Transformation Center, regarding the peer-recovery movement and its impact on the recovery community and community at large. Delman explains how a flying pig relates to the recovery movement.

On a cold Thursday in December, I made my way through the Boston Medical Center campus to the warmth of the conference room at the Boston Resource Center, a partner of the Metro Boston Recovery Learning Community. I was immediately welcomed by consumers, providers, and consumer-providers. We were there to attend a talk by Deborah Delman, Executive Director of The Transformation Center. Once introductions were complete, Deborah started her interactive talk, which focused on celebrations of change within the recovery community and peer recovery movement. We began with a song from The Sound of Music and ended with Deborah presenting a gift of a flying pig.

Located in Roxbury, Massachusetts, The Transformation Center is a peer-operated recovery center. Its vision is to promote the growth and voices of people with lived experience of mental illness and to help these diverse voices to transform policy and practice. In Delman’s words: “This vision engages the center in activities that connect broadly in communities where we live and work, and encourages us to “come out” as people who belong in the community and who, with this experience of mental suffering in our lives, are valuable and resourceful.”

Q: How does the peer recovery movement bring changes to mental health, homelessness, addiction, and trauma recovery?

The peer recovery movement has been led by two branches of volunteer leaders and activists, each embodying natural responses to a community in distress. One branch is peer support. Peer support or “self-help” groups expanded significantly in the 70’s including Manic Depressive & Depressive Association (now the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). In peer support meetings, everyone is a peer and each person comes to a meeting to give and receive support and encouragement. 

The other branch is social change activism where groups fight for civil rights and dignity. For example, these organizations won policies on elimination of seclusion and restraint and informed consent to treatment. Now it is common knowledge that restraint can be lethal and undermines the possibility of healing relationships in treatment; and now there is a system-wide focus on “shared decision-making.”

Q: What is the role of the Certified Peer Specialist (CPS)? How is it part of the peer recovery movement?

A new branch of our movement involves paid peer roles in traditional mental health treatment programs. For example, CPSs use our lived experience of recovery to encourage and inform individuals who are struggling with mental wellness issues. Peer Specialists share helpful parts of our recovery stories and assist people to find their own unique and action-focused “recovery journey,” rather than becoming stuck in a passive, illness-focused life.

The Transformation Center sought funding and support from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health to establish the Peer Specialist training and certification program in Massachusetts. Since accomplishing this, major mental health contracts have begun to require or encourage the use of Peer Specialists.

Q: What are the challenges and benefits of employing CPSs in an agency?

CPSs educate, challenge, and inspire colleagues to see and respond to their clients in new ways that support the groundwork for recovery. Employing CPSs in an agency for the first time requires understanding the brand new role and job description elements, as well as providing a supervisor who understands how to support the role appropriately. It is important to remember that a CPS is often the only person in the workplace willing to openly identify their status as a person with a mental health condition.

Q: At the end of your December 10th talk at the Boston Resource Center, you presented a gift of a toy flying pig. What did this symbolize?

When I began as a mental health peer advocate in 1987 as a member of M-POWER, we wanted our voices heard, yet very few doors opened to us. Resistance to the term “recovery” was huge. Peer Specialists were unheard of, peer-operated programs and rights to visitors, mail, phone calls and a restraint-free experience in mental hospitals were rare. By 2001 we had a clear, collective movement-wide vision of state funded peer-operated services and a statewide mental health recovery network. To be honest, we thought that we would achieve this vision “when pigs fly.” We are far from finished. However, the Boston Resource Center is one of 8 peer-operated organizations that has been funded directly because of our work together, work that included the efforts of the BRC’s Executive Director Howard Trachtman, since 1996.

This movement is powerful. Our collective work is much like the work of personal recovery: we work hard toward the vision of where we want to be. Even when that vision seems unimaginable, we imagine it and “keep on keeping on.” And somehow, somewhere, those pigs have been put to flight by our wholehearted action. I hope that everyone in the Boston Resource Center and all across our state can be encouraged to risk taking one step after another, until yet more pigs fly!

Publication Date: 
Newton Centre, MA, USA