Keris Jän Myrick keeps a photo on her desk of the woman who helped transform her life. 

As a Black woman living with schizophrenia, Myrick had spent years searching for a mentor. Someone who wouldn’t judge, wouldn’t pathologize, wouldn’t ask her to translate her reality into terms they could understand. 

“I was looking for someone like me,” she said.

But when Myrick attended mental health recovery conferences, the people on stage were mostly white. Sometimes she wondered: Is this movement for me?

Eventually, she befriended Jackie McKinney, a Black woman who had been hospitalized with mental illness for years, and had gone on to earn a master’s degree in social work. That relationship proved pivotal.

Chief of Peer and Allied Health Professions at Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Keris Jän Myrick, right, with her mentor Jackie McKinney. Photo courtesy of Keris Jän Myrick" Today, Myrick works for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and is a member of a large coalition of mental health advocates pushing Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill creating a peer certification pathway in California. As the county’s chief of peer and allied health professions, Myrick recently wrote a commentary for CalMatters, asking for the governor’s backing.

Peers are individuals who have lived with mental illness and are uniquely positioned to support others in the midst of a crisis. They can listen with an empathy borne of shared experience. They often have firsthand experience with services and treatments, which can make the knowledge they share feel trustworthy.  And they often have cultural fluency that allows them to connect with marginalized communities underrepresented in the ranks of other mental health providers.

Myrick describes the role of peers like this: “We have been through crises. We have been through hell and back. And we use those experiences to help others.”

Peer providers in California can already be found working in community clinics, running support groups, answering calls and doing outreach in the streets, schools and hospitals. But the federal government requires that states have a special peer certification to collect federal Medicaid dollars for these services. Currently, 48 states have such a certification. Only two — South Dakota and California — do not. 

Advocates say that, because there is no formal certification process for peers in California, organizations that serve people with mental illness here often have no way of billing Medi-Cal for many of the services peers provide. They also worry about a lack of uniform training, with significant variation among counties on what it takes to be a peer provider.

Advocates have spent the past eight years attempting to convince the state to change that. State Sen. Jim Beall, a San Jose Democrat and longtime mental health champion, is the author of the current bill. He attempted to pass similar peer support certification bills in 2018 and 2019. 

Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the first one, saying it would impose a costly new Medi-Cal benefit, requiring the state to shell out potentially tens of millions annually from its general fund to pay the non-federal share of cost for Medi-Cal. He also expressed concern that the bill could shut out some peer providers. 

Newsom vetoed Beall’s second bill, also noting the high cost to the state. In his veto message, he said he might consider peer support services as part of a future comprehensive mental health package.

As the pandemic and economic recession drag on, county mental health systems are bracing for growing demand for services — a recent study by the CDC found that 40 percent of American adults have struggled with mental illness or substance abuse during the pandemic. A new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows a near tripling of rates of depression since the pandemic began.

Now closing out his final few months in the Legislature, Beall wants to cement peer certification as part of his legacy–and views Newsom’s decision as a litmus test of the governor’s commitment to reforming the mental health system: “It’s almost unconscionable to not have boots on the ground helping people that lived like experiences,” said Beall, whose third attempt has slashed the state’s cost. “It’s not understandable why they don’t want to spend a little bit of money to get this thing going.”

Compared to previous iterations, this year’s bill has several changes that supporters believe will help facilitate its passage, said Michelle Cabrera, executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. 

Most significantly, the current bill would make the certification process an opt-in model for counties. The state would need to pay an estimated $1 million to $2 million to create the statewide certification standard, she said, but otherwise the bill shifts financial responsibility for implementation and oversight to the counties. Cabrera said many counties are ready to take on those costs because of the program’s clear benefits and because, in some cases, they are already paying for peer services.

“I think people maybe sometimes don’t understand just how uniquely effective it is,” she said of peer support services. “When we say it saves lives, it’s not hyperbole…It really is a linchpin in moving people into recovery and stabilizing them long-term.”

Peter Murphy, the outreach manager for the peer-led Mental Health Association of San Francisco, recalls drinking, using and struggling with mental health issues years ago. He’d often think to himself: “I’m screwed. I’m so different and messed up.” He found sponsors through 12-step programs to support him in getting clean and sober — but he didn’t know who to turn to for mental health concerns. At times, he was anxious, suicidal and feared people were after him.

Eventually he found his way to the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, where he has worked for the past several years. In recent months, due to the pandemic, phone lines sometimes have been overrun.

CW Johnson, left, does mental health outreach in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco in 2019. Photo courtesy of Peter Murphy

“I would say that a lot of it, at the most basic level, we offer a human connection of support,” he said.

His colleague, CW Johnson, offers the story of his life as a vehicle for insight and hope. Johnson tells students and medical providers about his experience growing up with neurological damage, the delusions and racing thoughts, the name-calling and stigma.

But the most meaningful work, for him, involves sharing his story with residents of the psychiatric inpatient unit where he once stayed. When people undergo surgery for a broken leg, Murphy points out, loved ones send cards and flowers. But when people end up in the psych unit, their loved ones often don’t know how to respond — and so don’t respond at all. That can be deeply isolating. 

Johnson sees the way these residents look at him when he visits. Their eyes tell him: “Oh God, you’ve been here before, too.” 

“What drives me is that I don’t want anyone to feel like they have no voice,” he said. “A lot of the time I felt like I had no voice. I felt ashamed of having mental health issues. And I want people to know they don’t have to feel that way. There are people that have walked in their shoes.”

Pin it

Coronavirus Resources

  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 20, 2020

    Tips for Spotting Fake News Stories — And Where to Find Sources You Can Trust

    Anytime there’s a significant news event — like a global pandemic, for example — you can expect misinformation to spread across the Internet. “Fake news” means stories that contain fabricated information, or information that’s based on rumor, shoddy methodology or a partisan agenda. With the…
  • Picture1
    April 17, 2020

    Recursos Alimentarios Durante COVID-19

    La alimentacion es una gran prioridad para muchos durante esta pandemia de COVID-19- cómo mantener a su familia alimentada en medio de despidos del trabajo, preocupaciones sobre salidas para conseguir comestibles y la posibilidad de transmisión por medio de los alimentos, todo mientras se trata de…
  • Groceries
    April 14, 2020

    COVID-19: Food Resources

    Food is top of mind for many during the COVID-19 pandemic — how to keep your family fed amid layoffs, concerns about grocery outings and food transmission, all while trying to maintain social distance. If you’re struggling to put food on the table, have questions about food safety or need help…
  • 200323 F BQ566 9001
    April 10, 2020

    COVID-19: Recursos Para Indocumentados y Sin Beneficios

    English version available here. A medida que la pandemia de coronavirus da vuelta la economía de la nación y deja a muchos sin trabajo, los inmigrantes indocumentados son particularmente vulnerables. En esta página encontrará recursos para ayudar a los miembros de la comunidad indocumentados y que…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 07, 2020

    COVID-19: Resources for the Undocumented and Uninsured

    As the coronavirus pandemic upends the nation’s economy and leaves many without work, undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable. On this page you’ll find resources to help undocumented community members and the uninsured. UndocuFund for Disaster Relief in Sonoma County The UndocuFund,…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 03, 2020

    COVID-19: Santa Clara County Resources

    Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department is providing detailed information about COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospital capacity on several data dashboards available online. The county has also assembled a variety of COVID-19 resources, as listed below and found at sccphd.org/coronavirus. Food…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    Apr 03, 2020

    COVID-19: How to Help

    As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take lives and strain resources, you might be wondering how you can help. Perhaps the most important thing you…
  • SR PD
    Mar 31, 2020

    Santa Rosa Police Department Mourns Loss of Detective

    Updated March 31, 2020, 4:00 p.m. The Santa Rosa Police Department reported today that Detective Marylou Armer passed away from complications from…
  • Medical
    Mar 31, 2020

    Coronavirus Resources

    The coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges for communities throughout the world. Whether you need help getting access to food, filing for…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    Mar 30, 2020

    COVID-19: Financial Resources for Sonoma County Residents

    California and the nation have seen a surge in unemployment claims as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to close their doors, leaving…
  • Library photo for website
    Mar 30, 2020

    Help the Sonoma County Library Tell the Story of Life During COVID-19

    The Sonoma County Library will be documenting life during the coronavirus pandemic with a special collection, and you’re invited to contribute. The…
  • 032920CalMattersEmptyRestaurant
    Mar 29, 2020

    California’s Shelter-In-Place Order, Explained

    By Byrhonda Lyons, CalMatters As President Donald Trump considers easing national restrictions by Easter, Californians are into their first week of…
  • 032920DowntownSantaRosa
    Mar 29, 2020

    Santa Rosa Outlines COVID-19 Support for Homeless

    The city of Santa Rosa says it’s following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect people experiencing…
  • gavin schools
    Mar 28, 2020

    Los Angeles Will Mirror New York As Coronavirus Surges, Newsom and Garcetti Warn

    By Judy Lin, Ben Christopher and Matt Levin, CalMatters Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued dire warnings Friday that the…
  • 032820CovidHandwashing
    Mar 28, 2020

    COVID-19: Sonoma County Resources for Seniors and Vulnerable Populations

    On March 17, Sonoma County’s health officer issued an order for all residents to shelter in place to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The order…
  • 032720CoronavirusResearch
    Mar 27, 2020

    Here’s What Happens to Science When California’s Researchers Shelter in Place

    By Rachel Becker, CalMatters As California officials desperately try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Chris Miller is coaxing a sample of…

NorCal News

Science & Health News

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.