Peer Support is Truly Effective
An Interview with Equine Therapist Candace Baker
By: Wheston Chancellor Grove
Candace Baker runs an equine therapy program based in Tennessee for veterans and individuals who have experienced trauma. When asked how she became interested in the field, Candace attributes it largely to her grassroots. She grew up in Texas with her family in the horse industry. “I was looking for something in the equine field. I’ve been a horseman my entire life. And then having dealt with some pretty recent trauma, I was seeking something in the mental health field. My husband is also military so I kind of was gearing my sails [toward veterans].” Candace loves what she does. Horses are a wonderful healing source because they are “really nonjudgmental; they don’t care what color you are or what past you have.” She and her staff implement the Peer Recovery Support Program as taught to them by Sharon Schlerf, President of Warrior Way Wellness Center, and Vice President Michael Newcomb. Located in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Warrior Way Wellness Center (WWWC) provides numerous services and training opportunities.
“Under Sharon’s purview and with her guidance,” Candace has applied the tools she learned from the program to address the needs of service members. “The level of care and positive feelings that people receive while working through the program, in conjunction with the horses, is amazing.”
When asked how peer support benefits those with PTSD and other related symptoms as compared to traditional counseling and therapy, Candace offers an eyewitness account of the holistic and subtle changes that occur. “We are not a doctor’s or a clinician’s office. So, for us it’s not having to sit down in a very sterile environment and asking the person to say, ‘This is how I feel, or this is what I’ve been diagnosed with.’ It’s really being able to work out a lot of things within yourself in a setting that is safe, relaxed, and comfortable. It’s not just the environment, it’s my staff.” As a peer support specialist, the relationship is lateral. Candace explains that “I’m here listening to them about their therapy and journey. I’m able to talk about mine as well.” She is not restricted from sharing life experiences. She tells them that what worked for her may not work for them, but in relating on the human level, connection is forged.
Part of the Certified Peer Support Specialist (CPSS) training is creating a metaphorical “toolbox” for moments when a person starts to go downhill, and self-intervention is critical. Peer support cultivates self-empowerment. It provides a deeper level of therapy because the connection is established on the basis of recognizing that life’s struggles are universal. The mentor embodies the humanized aspects of a healer and thereby mirrors hope and success for the mentee.
What does this mean? Essentially, the person who is suffering does not feel analyzed or made to believe something is wrong with him or her because they’re seeking help. Though much of the stigma surrounding traditional counseling has been removed in recent years as having a therapist is almost a trend, studies have shown that long-term recovery is difficult with just talk-therapy in a weekly or bi-monthly context. In contrast, peer support addresses multiple facets of trauma, going to the spirit. Enter the element of equine therapy and you have another tactile level of healing. There is something magical about horses and their silent, listening presence.
Candace emphasizes that peer support is akin to friendship, but the relationship is truly guided. “It’s not just calling up your neighbors or your friends. It’s goal-oriented, requiring a learned and practiced skillset which is geared toward helping others get through really significant [roadblocks] in a place that makes them feel good about themselves.” The setting is pivotal. Working on an equine farm provides open space, fresh air, and healing through doing. “I’m not here to have [veterans] rehash anything on a couch.”
No doubt traditional counseling has its place; however, peer-to-peer support is moving in a direction that students in graduate counseling programs need to be aware of, and trained in, if they want to be of service to others in the most effective way possible.
“One of my staff is a certified therapist who also went through CPSS training. Many counselors come out and are supportive of peer therapy [because] they see their clients flourish. The client feels surrounded by a whole community of people that want their success as much as they do. And I think that’s a really big thing, you know, to have a whole network of people that work together because they care about you. That’s what peer support is about—the group of people that work together because they believe in [the person].”
The network of ongoing support is critical. Peer support specialists understand this element because they’ve been through their own struggles. They are real, unmasked, and know as a team that they “have not had this perfect cookie-cutter life, either.” Peers empathize on an emotional felt level beyond intellectual ideas of empathy. Feeling for someone is far less powerful and comforting as feeling with someone. Being relatable and honest about one’s own hardships is a key component of peer support.
Another benefit of integrating peer support through equine therapy is how it helps the horses. Through natural horsemanship, they receive trust and support from each person they encounter. A lot of times Candace and her team find horses that have different issues from a lifetime of being with different people and other traumatic events. They all have their own little quirks and hang ups. The more they’re around people and they develop trust in that relationship, the more beneficial it is for them, as well as being mutually beneficial for the healing.”
For anyone unsure, skeptical, or unacquainted with peer support, Candace would like veterans to know that it alleviates feelings of alienation. Being able to converse with someone who has been in combat is very different than unloading anxieties to a psychologist who does not have first-hand experience of military life. The connection is natural and oftentimes goes beyond the concept of being brothers in arms. For veterans “it’s your brothers [and sisters] in healing as well.”
Candace works with military families and their children so they can better understand PTSD and curtail symptoms. “It’s not specific to just the soldier.” The whole family unit is affected. Left untreated, symptoms can influence a family’s lineage so that aftershocks continue down the line in future generations. “It’s a ripple in the pond. When we have couples come in or families, the keystones and skillsets of peer support provide a better understanding to everyone involved.”
Candace has had the privilege and honor of witnessing individuals turn their lives around. “You feel you’re making a contribution; you can see the results and hear about them. It’s like, wow, I feel a part of something, but it isn’t about me. It’s nice to see the team working together.” Success is difficult to quantify. Candace has probably seen over 100 individuals improve their lives. And that number continues to grow with her equine therapy.
Candace is honest and aware when she says, “In a way it’s a totally selfish thing that we do here. We help others, but at the end of the day you just feel really good seeing all of these people have those aha moments during their recovery, in their journey, or with their family. I feel so lucky to witness that, like a fly on the wall. I have these connections, while they’re doing it themselves, and I’m just there as a goal-oriented [ally] and encourager.”
Peer support addresses all areas of a person’s life. It resonates on many levels going to the core of where the issue(s) lie without probing or forcing anything. In short, it allows the person to come to healing rather than trying to force new insight. You can’t just treat one element and expect dramatic results. You can’t just treat the body. You can’t just treat the mind and believe everything will be healed. You have to reach the subtle, gentle, spiritual core of trauma. Horses exude an aura of liberated spirit. Sometimes what a person needs most is for someone—be it person or equine—to listen and be a witness. Many of the tools taught through peer support certification are common sense; however, for some reason they are overlooked or forgotten. Going through the training is revelatory. Sometimes the obvious just needs to be pointed out, revisited, or voiced by another to be integrated.
“It’s easier to help somebody else pursue the program when you have gone through it yourself,” says Candace. First, you have to know what your own toolbox is comprised of and how to use it before supporting others. After a traumatic miscarriage, Candace and her husband had totally different reactions to the devastating experience. “It was very difficult for me, so going through the CPSS program with Sharon and her husband, Mike, was validating because it taught me that my husband didn’t have to have the exact same emotional reaction as I did for it to still matter. We were able to validate each other’s emotions in a way we hadn’t approached before. It was like a huge weight was lifted off of our marriage. Peer support training is so helpful on a multitude of levels, and with Sharon and Mike serving as a team and as teachers, I can’t tell you how valuable they have been, not just to myself, but to my team and the countless veterans who continue to be helped.”
Why Peer Support?
By: Wheston Chancellor Grove
Mental health profession has become a major money-making industry progenating, as in fathering, advantages and disadvantages. With heightened awareness and consistent exposure to mental health illnesses comes a tendency to search for a label to neatly identify and categorize issues that may be natural and temporary, as opposed to those that are longstanding and truly ‘mental’. Counseling has become a trend in the United States. Nevertheless, talk therapy is proven effective. The mere act of experiencing another human being listening to you releases immediate distress, thereby alleviating cortisol levels. However, in the context of therapy, it is a contractual relationship. The client is paying for services. The client is paying to be heard. Many clients turn to therapists as a last-ditch effort. For this reason, it is essential that potential clients and therapists are highly aware of their intentions. If intentions are blurry or nonexistent, then goals need to be conceptualized and succinctly identified on paper from the start, otherwise therapy can turn into an endless, lifelong shoulder to lean on which disempowers the client to a certain degree. A good therapist, counselor, psychologist, “shrink”, does more than listen.
Unfortunately, many clients don’t realize they are guiding the sessions. Some may be too reticent to speak up or take the helm; others may not know what they want. In cases of trauma, talking about the source of intense, paralyzing pain can initially cause more distress. Counseling as a profession is an intimately contrived situation. Keyword being “contrived”. The counselor is trained to listen and be attentive. They may be mentors, advocates, cheerleaders, but not your friend from a legal standpoint. Enter the Peer Specialist. Peer Specialists are individuals who experience mental health issues of their own and work with others to impart skills and tools related to coping and enhancing their lives. This is why peer support is instrumental in seeing people change and take charge of their treatment plans. Sometimes the simple, raw facts are buried, lost in translation as “counselor and client” shift through details of the past. With a peer, the foundation is already in place. Sometimes the most powerful healing comes from two words: “I understand.” Not only intellectual understanding, but the more critical, emotional empathy of having shared another’s anguish in a similar form. Peer Support Specialists “get it” because they’ve been there and transparently speak about the ups and downs.
Many people go to a therapist with the false notion, “I have a problem and he or she— the therapist, the “doctor”, is going to help me fix it.” People need to be informed and aware of this major pitfall. To get better, to heal, requires awareness and support. Pray to God and meditate locked away in your room and you have both ‘awareness’ and ‘support’ without the expense of a copay! Of course, not everyone is ready to confront themselves. For others, God is not a refuge. They seek a human ear, which is completely natural. The irony is, the only answer, the final solution, the chief “treatment,” lies within. It may sound cliché, a Taoist platitude, but it is no less true.
Peers don’t turn to each other with the expectation of receiving the “answer” to their dilemmas. They are looking for the way back to being whole. Unconditional support is effective. Peers, like AA sponsors, don’t talk with you for 50 minutes then pull the plug and schedule you for the next week. Peer Specialists support you at all hours, when you’re at your most vulnerable. Traditional therapy sometimes neglects, and is restricted from, the value of camaraderie. Camaraderie isn’t a service for which one pays. Camaraderie is borne of shared suffering. Would you rather turn to someone whose been in battle and survived to tell about it, or speak to someone whose read about war in a book? To know is to feel. To feel is to remember. And to remember is to say, “I’ve been there.”
At Warrior Way Wellness Center, the staff of trained Peer Specialists “get it.” They are here to serve those, especially veterans, who seek balm for their wounds and medicine for their heart, mind, and soul – none of which comes packaged on any shelf or scripted in a tutorial. They show you how to make the healing elixir for yourself, one ingredient at a time.