Expanding Peer Services/ Workforce, In Minority Communities A Priority For DBSA, Leader Writes

Michael Pollack, DBSA photo

(1-17-22) In the last of this series, Michael Pollock, the CEO of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, today answers the four questions that I have been posing this month to leaders of mental health organizations – asking each about 2021 accomplishments, 2022 priorities and why each of them were drawn to mental health work. I was especially pleased to have received Mr. Pollock’s replies because my son, Kevin, attended DBSA meetings and the group was helpful to his recovery. 

What was DBSA’s biggest accomplishment during 2021?

According to data provided by the CDC Mental Health Household Pulse Survey, 42.% of Americans reported experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety in December 2020. This is a 133% increase from pre-pandemic rates. Further, non-Hispanic Blacks have reported a disproportionate increase in symptoms since the pandemic began, not unlike the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 positive tests results among the Black community. This crisis is further compounded by barriers to care often faced by people with mood disorders and other mental health conditions, particularly with individuals from traditionally marginalized communities.

The Depression and Bipolar Alliance (DBSA) has earned a favorable reputation to successfully train people with lived experience to become state-certified peer support specialists, who’s professional role is to foster hope and serve as a valuable role model for those who are walking the road to wellness. Training, however, is only the first step toward achieving certification. Depending on the state, individuals are required to earn supervised hours in a behavioral health or other employment setting to gather hands-on experience. Insurance will not reimburse for this work and health care employers are under resourced and, therefore, can’t or won’t offer this group paid employment. Most who are interested in pursuing profession are stymied by the practical realities that they must earn a living.

To address these barriers and to focus our efforts on serving under-served and under-represented communities, DBSA launched a new peer specialist apprentice pilot program, serving individuals in the Black community living with a mental health condition.

As part of their first year of training, the apprentices completed a number of mental health training courses, participated in peer support groups specifically for the Black community, and engaged with outside community organizations to offer mental health resources. Their work counted toward their required hours for state certification and has prepared them for their second year of apprentice work in 2022, where they will work in a local behavioral health organization earning practical experience as a PSS and complete their required hours before sitting for the state exam.

Thanks to public and private funding, apprentices are paid as they go through the program. Funding is also used to help DBSA evaluate the program so that we can demonstrate its impact with an eye toward scaling this important workforce development program nationwide. Equally important and more immediate, members of the Black community living with mood disorders are receiving access to resources and support not previously available.

What are your priorities going into 2022?

In addition to expanding the DBSA peer apprentice program, we continue to identify ways to offer peer support and wellness resources to a broader and more diverse audience of peers, family members, and clinicians. In response to the mental health and isolation crisis that has occurred during this pandemic, DBSA increased the number of free weekly online support groups by seven-fold. Despite our response, demand for peer-run support groups has outpaced our growth by nearly 2:1. Said differently, for every two individuals signing up for a support group for the first time, there will likely only be room for one of them.

Our priority in 2022 will be to continue to attract resources, including pushing for federal support, to expand online support groups and other virtual peer services. DBSA already offers support groups for young adults, Veterans, caregivers, people living with co-occurring disorders (substance use and a mood disorder), as well as for the LGBTQ+ and the Black community. Our goal is to continue to offer peer support and other wellness resources to additional communities and identity groups, such as rural and farming areas, children and teens experiencing symptoms of mood disorders, and various ethnic cultures within the LatinX and Asian communities. 

What are the biggest challenges that you currently face?

I often say to the DBSA team and others that, unfortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities to improve mental health in our country. This pandemic has exposed the cracks – and often gaping holes – in our system. Thanks to our funders, donors, and volunteers, DBSA has been able to expand and improve the resources and support we are offering. But the reality is that the need for peer support and wellness resources, exacerbated by the pandemic, continues to outpace the hard work from the DBSA staff and volunteers to grow and expand our offerings. This has led to making difficult choices between which individuals living with mood disorders and their caregivers will learn about and receive beneficial resources. We risk staff and volunteer burnout and ensuring our own mental health is managed well so that we can continue to be there for our community.

Why did you get involved in mental health?

Mental health issues have been a part of my family’s experience my entire life.

I witnessed family members suffer with depression, mania, and psychosis; struggled to figure out the most helpful ways to lend support; and spent too many Christmases “celebrating” in a psych ward. Fortunately, I also watched those I love to recover and experience academic, employment and relationship successes in their lives that continue to benefit them to this day. For me, this work is personal. After earning my undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, I committed to using those skills to help the nonprofit sector successfully advance their missions. Some of that work included working in leadership roles that focused on mental health and other related human service issues.  In 2018, I was offered the opportunity to lead DBSA, a patient advocacy organization launched 37 years ago by two women living with bipolar disorder. Rose Kurland and Marilyn Weiss were committed to ensuring people with mood disorders across the United States had access to peer support, and that their voices and experiences were heard and understood by medical professionals, the insurance industry, policy makers, family members, and the public. The commitment of these two women, and those they mobilized, inspire me and remain the essence and spirit of DBSA as we continue to advance our mission to provide hope, help, support, and education for people living with mood disorders.

About the author: (from DBSA webpage)

A thoughtful, motivated, outcomes-oriented leader, Michael Pollock serves as CEO for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Michael drives DBSA’s mission of providing hope, help, support and education to improve the lives of people living with mood disorders. He is a fierce advocate for the value of peer support, accessible mental health care, and programs and policies that empower people living with mood disorders to reach their full potential.

During his 20+ years of non-profit leadership experience, Michael has held leadership positions at the National Safety Council, Thresholds, and United Way.

Michael is an alumnus of Bowling Green State University, where he earned both a B.S. in Business Administration and a Master’s of Organization Development.

Interested in interviewing Michael or having him speak at your event? Contact media@dbsalliance.org.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.