'This Place Is Just Peace': Finding A Mental Health Respite Through Peer Support

Keris Jän Myrick, chief of peer and allied health professions for L.A. County's Department of Mental Health. (Robert Garrova/LAist)

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If you were preparing for a difficult journey, say a trip up Mt. Everest, you would want a guide to help you along the way, someone who's been there before.

That's the basic idea behind an alternative approach to mental health: peer support, where people who know what it's like living with a mental illness help others with their psychiatric condition.

It takes the form of peer-run drop-in centers and peer respite centers, where guests can stay for up to two weeks.

Pre-pandemic, Keris Jän Myrick showed me L.A.'s Peer Resource Center, a building that once was used for storage, in the Wilshire Center neighborhood.

"This is like the best building ever, this is L.A. County's first directly-operated peer run center," Myrick said.

"It's hard to navigate everything, so [it helps] having somebody who's been through [it] and they're kind of like your GPS," said Myrick.

At the peer resource center, anyone can come in for a few hours to get help with their mental health, get connected to resources and maybe even take part in some karaoke.

"It's really interesting because ... I come down [and] hear people singing in different languages, yet here we all are in a group supporting each other," Myrick said.

'YOU DON'T HAVE TO HAVE A DIAGNOSIS TO COME IN'

As chief of peer and allied health professions for L.A. County's Department of Mental Health, Myrick is a big fan of peer support.

Before she worked for the county, Myrick helped set up Hacienda of Hope, one of only two peer respite centers in L.A. County.

Guests can check in for a few days to give their mind a break and find support.

Myrick says it's something she wishes she had as she struggled in years past with her schizophrenia.

"Especially when I was going through crisis, everything felt really loud and overwhelming, so I would have this habit of hiding in my closet," she said. "And I thought, wow, that's what I need, I need some place that's soothing, but I also don't want to be alone."

"You don't have to have a diagnosis to come in, we don't ask for insurance," said Hacienda of Hope Program Coordinator Joey Arcangel. There are social groups like music appreciation, but also support groups where guests can speak on what's challenging to them, she said.

Located in a two-story house on a residential street, you just have to be 18 and follow some basic house rules to be a guest at Hacienda of Hope. There are clean beds, a kitchen, an entertainment room, even a guitar for those who are inclined.

One of the rooms at Hacienda of Hope, a peer respite center in Long Beach. (Robert Garrova/LAist )

Since the pandemic, Hacienda has had to go from a capacity of 10 guests at a time to six. Staff screen new clients for the virus.

As someone who's been hospitalized for her mental health, Arcangel has a special appreciation for a place like this.

"If my mental health were to get to a level where I feel I need more support, respite would be a solution where it doesn't take away from me financially and I would still maybe be able to see my son," Arcangel said. "It's not a locked setting."

Former guest Chelle Thomas said she received "phenomenal" support during her stay at Hacienda of Hope. Now she leads a support group there.

Thomas runs "Chatting with Chelle," where guests can talk about things like finding help with their mental health and managing symptoms.

"I've had several hospitalizations but they've always been voluntary and so had I known about Hacienda of Hope [previously], I would have never had to be hospitalized in an institutionalized setting." Thomas said.

"For me, this place is just peace," she said.

There's some research on the peer support model. A UC San Diego study of Black and Latino youth (age 16-24) with serious mental illness found those with peer support got outpatient treatment more often.

"I would think that this data would provide some encouragement for the use of peer support," said Dr. Todd Gilmer, who co-authored the study.

So why are there only two peer respite centers in LA County? Myrick said she's the first chief of peer services, and she's only been on the job for two years.

"This is a big county and I think trying to do new things and start new things and get them off the ground does not happen overnight," she said.

Last week Governor Newsom signed into law a bill that paves the way to expand the use of peer providers by creating a certification process and opening up the possibility for pilot projects funded by Medi-Cal.


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