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Supporting recovery through shared experiences

Peer Support Specialist Vic Pemberton leads a class of Veterans in the Veterans Enrichment Center. Photo by James Arrowood.

Opening up about challenges you’re facing in life can be difficult. One of the tools in mental health recovery that is being used both inside and outside of VA are peer support specialists—someone with a mental health disorder who is actively engaged in his/her own recovery.

They have been trained to help others with mental disorders identify and achieve recovery goals. This year on Oct. 18, this special career field is recognized on Global Peer Support Specialist Day.

Vic Pemberton is a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran and a peer support specialist at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center who brings 15 years of exceptional experience with him. Pemberton was in the fourth class of graduates learning directly from the founders of peer support, Gene Johnson and Lori Ashcroft. After graduating in 2003, Pemberton spent 11 years in the private sector working on crisis intervention teams, inpatient units, case management and housing programs. He even helped expand the scope of peer support specialists by engaging in Arizona’s Recovery Navigator Pilot Program that led to 200 recovery navigators being hired throughout that state.

“I always wanted to bring peer support to Veterans, but it wasn’t available at VA yet,” said Pemberton. “That’s just where my heart has always been.”

So, in 2013, when President Obama signed an order to bring peer support to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Pemberton was one of the first 1,000 specialists that was hired. He started at the New Mexico VAMC in June 2014, transferring to Charleston the following year to be close to family.

At Charleston VAMC, Pemberton leads innovative and interactive recovery groups for Veterans at both the Veterans Enrichment Center and on the Mental Health Inpatient Unit. He was also instrumental in developing the curriculum for Charleston’s Moral Injury Program with Chaplain John Painter.

“I let the Veterans know that recovery is not the be thought of as a negative, but is a normal, common human experience,” said Pemberton. “They are reclaiming what was rightfully theirs all along.”

Pemberton wants to continue using his experience and knowledge to increase the effectiveness of the methodology of peer support in a way that helps empower the reputation of VA, and in particular Charleston VA. He plans to continue his work on expanding the role of peer support within VA, so that more Veterans find the assistance they need.

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