Michael McCollum had run out of options and out of hope. At his lowest point, the 58-year-old Houston, Texas man found himself experiencing homelessness and struggling with a disability for the first time in his life after years of escalating physical and mental health struggles.
Michael has long battled depression, anxiety and substance use. Last year, he was hospitalized after two attempts to take his own life.
“These weren’t just cries for help. Without hope, there’s nothing,” Michael said.
A bad situation worsened when he suffered a stroke one month later that paralyzed half of his body. He lost housing due to his inability to work and began living in the woods. He couldn’t talk, walk or find anyone to help him. Then, during a hospital visit, he had an intervention — her name was Claudia Dominguez, a certified peer support specialist for Optum Behavioral Health.
Peer support specialists are individuals living in long-term recovery from mental health and substance use conditions and have been specially trained to support members’ engagement in community treatment and recovery programs. When a UnitedHealthcare member who has been diagnosed with a mental health or substance use disorder is discharged from the hospital or referred to outpatient treatment, within 24 hours they will be contacted by a peer support specialist who can offer the member support on their path to recovery from someone who has “been there.”
Drawing on their personal experience and specialized training, peers help members connect to resources that help them manage symptoms, maintain wellness, plan for crisis, and build support networks with family, friends and providers. Perhaps most importantly, they foster hope and encouragement by serving as a real-life example that recovery is possible.
Claudia is 14 years sober from substance use and successfully managing anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She found a life calling when she began working as a peer support specialist five years ago.
“I lead by example,” Claudia said. “I am the seed. My job is to plant the seed of hope in other people and watch them grow.”
When she met Michael, his crisis situation prompted her to go above and beyond her usual job duties. She brought him blankets and clothing when he was living in the woods. She made hundreds of calls on his behalf to help him find a wheelchair, secure housing, find furniture donations for his new apartment and connect him to needed therapy to help him recover from his stroke.
“I remember one day he called me crying. Everyone was hanging up on him, because after his stroke, it would take him five minutes to get one sentence out. That just hurt my heart. That is what drove me to go above my call,” Claudia said.
Members that engage with peer support programs, mostly in Medicaid populations, have shown significantly improved outcomes, such as better adherence to follow-up treatments and a reduced need for hospital readmission. For example, in New York, members enrolled in a peer coaching program showed a 48% decrease in the number of patients that needed to be re-admitted to the hospital as they adjusted back to living on their own.
“Having support from someone that is a peer who's been through a similar experience and can show the member that recovery is possible, then help them create a roadmap for their own path to recovery, is an incredible way for us to build peer support into the whole person care model,” said Don Langer, the United Healthcare Community & State CEO for Texas.
Claudia helped Michael for six months as he continued to get back on his feet. Today, he’s thriving in his new apartment and learning to walk again. He even recently won the first “Overcomer of the Year” award from the UnitedHealthcare Texas insurance plan. The award honors great improvements in a member’s mental health or substance abuse recovery as a result of their commitment to the peer specialist program.
The hope Michael once lost now carries him forward. He’s working on signing up for training courses to one day become a peer support specialist himself.