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Beyond the walls of Stella’s Place: A Community of Peers
Stella’s story is a familiar one: Stella began to struggle with their mental health in high school and when their family started looking for age-appropriate and accessible mental health care, they couldn’t find it. At every turn, there were waitlists for care and steep price tags for therapy. Support groups were easier to find but they were for older adults with whom Stella had nothing in common. Stella was in what we now refer to as the ‘gap’ in mental health care: a void of care for young adults who have aged out of children’s services but for whom services for older adults are neither appropriate nor comfortable. And for those who don’t necessarily need emergency services, mental health care, in general, is often inaccessible. This story is familiar not only because it is the founding story of Stella’s Place, but also because it is one we hear far too often. It is the story of so many young adults, including Corrina, a longtime participant of Stella’s Place.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Stella, Corrina, and Corrinas’ mother, Michelle Melles, on a beautiful summer day in Withrow Park to talk about the commonalities in Stella’s and Corrina’s stories. There are many. After Stella and Corrina caught up on the people and places they both know, we began to discuss their shared struggle to find adequate care and how, ultimately, both felt they were saved by peer support.
Stella, Corrina & Michelle in Withrow Park, talking about peer support
A Community Informed by Peer Support
For Stella, peer support came from fellow residents in treatment. Stella went to several residential treatment centres in the United States when their family was unable to find appropriate help in Canada. There were no institutional or trained peer support programs in those places but Stella and their friends in treatment were able to relate to each other in ways that the therapists and psychiatrists simply couldn’t: “I enjoyed becoming a peer supporter for my peers, even though we were all in treatment together. That’s what I found the most beneficial, I think, the relationships and the connections that I had with my peers there, more than anything else.”
Stella’s experiences in treatment and feedback from other young adults with lived experience in mental health care lead to innovative and trained peer support programs at Stella’s Place. And it was those programs that first attracted Corrina to walk into the Café at Stella’s Place in 2017: “I still remember my first day I was there, I had just gotten out of the hospital and I actually met someone who was a Peer Support Worker the first day and they were so welcoming and they didn’t make me feel like my symptoms were too much to handle or anything like that. I felt very welcome [at Stella’s Place] and it was this really great environment; it has a really cozy, accepting feeling to it.”
I asked Stella if they would have gone to Stella’s Place had it been available to them when they needed support: “Maybe, but it would have been really hard to just walk in there!” It can be intimidating to walk into a new environment when you’re having a hard time but Corrina said that a welcoming and casual atmosphere was exactly what she needed in that moment of her life.
Corrina: “I was immediately shown to the kitchen, shown snacks, shown where the coffee was, where the tables were, and it felt super cozy and super personal. I sat down and I met people and everyone was super friendly….People were welcoming. It creates an environment like we’re all in it together.”
Stella: “They’re as happy to see you coming there as you are to see people like them there”
Corrina: “Exactly! Because we’re in the same boat”
Stella: “There are needs for more intensive care but [mental health care] doesn’t need to be such a big deal. Like, just come in and play some games and have a snack…we can just hang out for an hour and then go our separate ways and it doesn’t have to be a big deal.”
Corrina: “It’s just casual and it doesn’t make you feel like it’s this huge dramatic thing that’s happening to you.”
There are times when people need intensive or emergency care services to help with their mental health; Corrina and Stella have both needed that in the past. But it is clear from our conversation that what is also needed is support that is casual, that is accessible, and that allows for agency and flexibility.
Stella adds that peer support is crucial for preventative health care, too: “To know that you’re not alone, there are other people [who have] come through or are living with things and know how to cope — to have that before you’re in a crisis, I can imagine would lower the crisis rate.” Stella’s Place is doing just that.
Why does peer support work?
It’s clear talking to Corrina and Stella that talking to someone who has been through the same things they have has been healing. But why is it so effective? Michelle recently interviewed Gabor Maté, M.D., a physician and expert in childhood development and trauma. Michelle brought up the subject of peer support to Dr. Maté: “It seems like the peer support movement is as valid and healing as psychiatry.” He explained in their interview that there is a physiological reason why peer support is effective: the branch of your nervous system responsible for restoring calm and a sense of safety is activated by trust and connection. Not only do we feel calmer, our bodies respond in kind: “When there is safety, we go into the restorative healing mode, we can engage, I can look at you in the face, my facial muscles will reflect our interaction, my ear muscles will open up so I can hear you better, and there’s a sense of connection, which then creates a resonance in the magnetic waves that our hearts generate. Now, that’s what happens in a peer support situation.” (Dr. Maté).
When I asked whether it physically feels different to talk to a peer compared to a medical professional, Corrina said she can “100% feel the difference.”
Corrina: “When I’m with a peer, because we’ve been through the same kinds of things, it just feels like they’re able to really understand what I’m saying.”
Stella: “You’re not listening to take instruction, you’re listening to be a part of a participatory conversation and relationship”
With a peer, we feel trust, empathy, and safety, allowing us to listen better and to process information more fully. Peers can speak firsthand about their own experiences and resilience, and can give relatable advice. Building connection and community with peers plays a different role than clinical care and they both are needed.
Michelle has recently completed a beautiful documentary, Drunk on Too Much Life, which she describes as a “love letter to Corrina and to the peer support movement.” The film follows Corrina’s journey, as well as that of her parents, Michelle and Pedro, beyond traditional psychiatric care to a greater understanding of psychosis and alternate realities. It explores language and mysticism and art and nature and how all of these things, together, have allowed the family to grow, heal, and communicate their needs and their love for each other. Corrina said “instead of reacting against me, [my parents] were actually able to create something beautiful…they really took the time to get to know me and how they can help me.”
In the documentary, Corrina has enlightening conversations with others who also experience alternate realities and is visibly relieved to know that she is not alone in her experiences. Michelle and Pedro also rely on peers who guide them through their harder moments. They help Michelle and Pedro understand Corrina better and teach them how to take care of themselves in the process. Michelle’s film shows what it means to create a network of peer support and Stella’s Place has been a big part of theirs.
Michelle, Stella, and Corrina all agree that peer support should be more readily available, that there should be a Stella’s Place in every neighbourhood.
Stella: “Just knowing those things are out there raises the awareness that there are people like yourself…whether it’s gender or eating or anxiety, depression, whatever it is. Like ‘oh, this is a place that’s everywhere, this must be like a normal thing.’”
Michelle: “That’s so well put”
Corrina: “That’s so true. Like ‘I’m not a freak,’ exactly”
Stella: “Obviously, going is helpful but just knowing they’re around. It’s like those little neighbourhood libraries”
Michelle: “That’s what it is, it’s about normalizing, that this is all part of the spectrum. We have this idea that mental illness is the other, that’s what the biomedical paradigm does, like ‘oh it’s a disease’. Instead of ‘no these are all spectrums of experience’. It’s not that it’s over there, it’s like we’re all human and this is the spectrum of humanity.”
It is clear talking to Corrina, Michelle, and Stella that the ‘gap’ in mental health care is more than just an age gap; there is also a lack of preventative or early intervention services. So many young people are unable to find support until it’s too late or their first experience of mental health care is in the emergency room or in intensive inpatient treatment. Corrina has been able to fill that gap at Stella’s Place. It is there that she, like so many participants, have been able to feel accepted, heard, and validated, like they have control and choices when it comes to their own mental health care.
Corrina: “I feel as though [Stella’s Place] succeeded in creating a very welcoming environment…when you’re struggling, it’s like this thing that can be treated casually instead of this emergency that makes you feel like the world is ending, like you don’t have to go to the hospital and you don’t have to get kicked out of your house, like there’s somewhere you can go that makes you feel like a human being and makes you feel welcomed and it’s not like the world is ending and you can play a board game or you can eat a snack or just relax with other people who are going through similar things. I really like that.”
Stella: “Sometimes you just need to play a board game”
Michelle: “Mental illness is so stigmatized and so dehumanizing and this is a humanizing approach to it.”
Stella: “In terms of peer support at Stella’s Place, it’s like a yield sign. They guide you somewhere rather than a dead end where you have to turn left or right. You can go this way or this way and we’ll support you either way.”
A screenshot from Drunk on Too Much Life documentary
Building our Community
Stella and Corrina both found solace and empowerment in their connections with peers, in the casual settings that allowed them to make those connections, in safe and comfortable communities. Stella found their community in the in-between times at treatment centres, playing music and getting to know their peers. Corrina found it in the Stella’s Place café. Though our café space has been closed due to COVID-19, the imminent opening of the new Stella’s Place building brings the hope of that community restored.
But these vital and restorative conversations between peers are happening outside of its walls, too. As we sat in the grass and talked, I realized that Stella’s Place is already becoming its own network, bringing the four of us together to share our experiences and hopes for the future. The work of normalizing these conversations begins at Stella’s Place and resonates out into the community, building bridges, and reducing stigma. Without the connections we’d made at Stella’s Place, we wouldn’t have all been sitting there together at all.
Selfie of Elisa, Stella, Corrina & Michelle
Michelle Melle’s documentary had its advanced premiere at the Get Reel Film Festival at Stella’s Place this past May and its world premiere at the Workman Arts’ Rendezvous with Madness festival this fall.