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Cheryl Baeza and Afrah Caraballo

‘Amazing and powerful and humbling’

Over 40 years as a licensed clinical social worker, Cheryl Baeza estimates that she’s accumulated 200-plus continuing education units. But she says none of her classes were like Provider Education.

“I’ve never had a class that’s treated severe chronic mental illness as a trauma,” Baeza says, “with needing to recognize that there are recovery steps to take.”

Afrah Caraballo has been in formal practice for more than 10 years, as an LCSW and president of Colorado Springs-based Family ROCS (Reaching Out, Connecting and Supporting). Given her career and an active family and community life, she understands how hard it is for health care workers to free up time for a 15-hour program. But when it comes to Provider Education, she says, “Quite frankly, I think it should be mandatory.”

It makes you wonder: What does this free NAMI program offer that others don’t?

That comes down to two words: “lived experience.”

Since the first one in 2012, each Provider Education course in El Paso County has been led by five specially trained community members: a provider, two family members of people with mental illness, and two people living with mental illness. Together, they tackle a handful of unique learning objectives, such as “understanding of the realities of living with mental illness” and “compassion for the vulnerabilities people face when seeking care.”

When Caraballo took the class in 2016, she was amazed to hear of the misunderstandings and microaggressions that individuals and families had encountered in seeking mental health treatment. She says she was able to really “experience the client for the first time, not the client as a diagnosis.

“To see such power and humility in people willing to share their story and educate the so-called educated was just amazing and powerful and humbling. It really impacts the way I communicate with anyone who walks through my door now. It’s like, Yeah, I was trained, but I wasn’t trained in YOU.”

If the breadth of instruction team makes the course powerful, it also tends to make the course rare. Getting so many people trained and lined up to teach is a challenge. In fact, NAMI-Colorado Springs is the only NAMI affiliate in Colorado offering Provider Ed.

In terms of getting it launched, NAMI-Colorado Springs owes a debt of gratitude to the El Paso County Collaborative, 14 local organizations that brought program author Joyce Burland to town in 2009 for a training. Trainees included Baeza — then a NAMI board member and its representative on the collaborative — and Cheryl Stine, who was also a NAMi board member and a longtime leader at AspenPointe.

Once the collaborative dissolved, the two Cheryls did much of the work to ensure the program would survive at NAMI. Both are certified as state-level trainers, with Baeza also being certified nationally. Baeza also serves as the local program coordinator.

The local Provider Ed program, Baeza says, is one of just two nationwide that has offered classes continuously since its inception. (The other is in South Carolina, where the program is state-funded.) She notes that more than 300 people have now taken some form of Provider Education locally, including employees of health care organizations such as Peak Vista Community Health Centers and Peak View Behavioral Health; independent counselors and therapists; and Fourth Judicial District Probation employees. Providers are invited to find out about upcoming five-week classes here.

To donate to NAMI, click here.

(December 2017)

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