When I asked Ashleigh Wall why she became a Peer Support Specialist, I could sense her determination and passion. Her simple answer was, to help other Veterans with PTSD and experiences of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). She hopes to help Veterans who feel isolated and misunderstood like she had once felt.
That’s exactly what a Peer Support Specialist is – a Veteran who is actively engaged in his/her own mental health recovery and serves as a role model by sharing his/her personal recovery stories, showing that recovery from mental illness is possible. It is about Veterans helping other Veterans.
Ms. Wall knew that the power of peer support can change lives. “Being a Peer Support Specialist is about being a role model for other Veterans”, said Wall, “and helping them to cope [with their challenges] and enhance their well-being”.
Ms. Wall traveled a difficult road to arrive at where she is today. After returning home from deployment, she experienced nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. She had difficulties with personal relationships and struggled in school. After a friend told her that she had changed into an opinionated and aggressive person, Ashleigh finally realized something needed to change. She sought help from VA, and was diagnosed with PTSD.
Yet, there was another issue that she chose to hide away – Military Sexual Trauma (MST). She did not want to speak of it and pretended it wasn’t there. Fortunately, through the help of VA, Ms. Wall was connected with a therapist who helped her talk through this experience. That’s when the healing began. Through the help of a therapist, family, and friends, she started to talk about the trauma she experienced. Talking through the trauma helped Wall to accept that it happened, and accept that it wasn’t her fault. Having a strong support system - therapist, family and friends - helped Wall to walk through the darkest nights.
Today, Ms. Wall no longer hides away her experience with MST. She has found her voice and shared her story in front of a large audience at a special event. She understands that being able to say “I had a similar experience” is powerful. And she has that power. She wants to spread a message to other Veterans that there’s help. What they are experiencing is normal. There are other Veterans, Peer Support Specialists such as herself, who have had similar experiences, who stand ready to help. That help is offered in a safe environment where no shame or guilt is put on anyone. Most importantly, that Peer Support is about showing that there is hope and that it does get better.
To learn about how to become a Peer Support Specialist or Apprentice, contact Dan O'Brien-Mazza.
*Ms. Ashleigh Wall has given permission to Web Services to post details of her story and picture.
By Yulissa Chan, VHA Mental Health Web Services