CT moving toward peer-run respite centers

By Eileen Weber
July 4th, 2024
Jennifer Tirado is a peer support advocate and coordinator at Connecticut’s Alternatives to Suicide Networks.
Jennifer Tirado is a peer support advocate and coordinator at Connecticut’s Alternatives to Suicide Networks.

Bill proposes community-based alternatives

Connecticut is considering legislation to provide funding for eight peer-run respite centers in five separate regions. According to the bill, proposed for the 2025 budget, a peer-run respite center is a community-based alternative for people undergoing a mental health crisis that gives them the chance to avoid psychiatric hospitalization.

The centers are voluntary, unlocked facilities where people can come and go at will. Personal items like cell phones are not confiscated and the peer support staff are specialists with lived experience who provide 24/7 mental health support.

Fifteen other states including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, have already implemented this type of mental healthcare.

“Here, there’s no fear of being forced to take drugs and being held against your will. It’s enough for them to know I feel this way. That I live with this and I’m still here today.” -- Ephraim Akiva, director, Wildflower Alliance

Jennifer Tirado, a peer support advocate and coordinator at Connecticut’s Alternatives to Suicide Networks, touted the benefits of peer-run respite centers in testimony to the General Assembly.

Tirado experienced her own mental health crisis and knows how it feels to go through the psychiatric system in the state. She noted that a psychiatric hospital stay costs 10 times more than respite centers, according to a 2021 study. And those who receive peer support are 70 percent less likely to return to inpatient care.

What she called a “truly run” peer center—not one that has a few peer supports but is mostly run by clinicians—is the only real model of this type of care, she said. And the people who benefit the most from these centers are from the LGBTQ community, people of color, and the Spanish-speaking community.

“It’s a powerfully healing experience when you’re in deep distress and the person across from you can honestly say: ‘I get it,’” she explained in her testimony. “We need legislators to help make this happen. We need the support of clinicians and psychiatrists who know that change in our system is needed.”

She added despair can be prevented with openness, the ability to evolve and a willingness to accept criticism.

Jordan Fairchild is executive director of Keep The Promise Coalition, which is a grassroots initiative of people with lived experience of mental stress and trauma supporting others with similar challenges.

Fairchild believes respite centers provide more substantial care than a psychiatric hospital stay. She said a person experiencing a mental health issue has limited options such as calling 988, which can result in the police arriving, possible handcuffing and having personal items confiscated.

Additionally, the potential of being locked in a ward can cause fear and anxiety, Fairchild said, adding that studies show people are more likely to die by suicide having been in a clinical setting.

Fairchild said being locked in a ward may lead to the loss of a job or home. She pointed out electrotherapy is still legal in Connecticut.

“For transgender individuals, their hormone replacement therapy is taken away as well as the clothing they identify with, and they may be forced to be in a group of people who harass them because of their gender,” Fairchild noted.

Ephraim Akiva is the director at Wildflower Alliance that oversees Afiya Respite Center in Northampton, Mass. Open for the past 12 years, Afiya was the first respite center in that state and has served as a model for the proposed respite centers in Connecticut. He agreed with Fairchild’s assessment because it has also been his lived experience.

“I’ve been hospitalized,” he said. “The reality is, when you go into a hospital you know you are limited in what you can talk about or you’re not going to get out. Here, there’s no fear of being forced to take drugs and being held against your will. It’s enough for them to know I feel this way. That I live with this and I’m still here today.”

Fairchild concurred. “If you admit you have been having suicidal thoughts, you are probably not going home any time soon. Your service cannot be trauma informed if they can’t inform you of their trauma.”

At Afiya, there is typically a seven-night stay. Akiva’s organization is also working on a respite center to accommodate a two-week stay for members of the LGBTQ community.

While the legislative plan is to eventually have eight centers, three of them will cater to the LGBTQ, BIPOC, and Spanish-speaking communities.

Fairchild said the goal is to have a flexible stay—whether one or two weeks. She added they would be open to accept people for subsequent or repeat stays if necessary.

The bill, which is being folded into a more generalized mental health bill, SB1, has had a lot of support within the industry including organizations like the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital.

“There’s got to be demand for it,’ said Akiva. “You have to ask the question, `Is this something the community wants?’ And I think the answer is yes.”

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