The Chapel Hill Police Department Crisis Unit recently hired Laverne Burton as its first peer support specialist. She began in the role on June 13.
The new position is designed to help those who need mental health support connect with someone with lived experience.
Burton explained that she knew it was the occupation she wanted for a long time. She added that the peer support specialist role allows her to combine her experience as a certified nurse assistant with her recovery experience.
“I'm a team player, and I feel that sharing my experience, strength and hope is very helpful in the peer support world,” she said.
Crisis Counselor Jordan Hyler, who joined the crisis unit in January, said Burton’s role differs from that of a counselor.
The unit’s five counselors respond directly to crises with police officers as part of a co-response model, while Burton’s role as a peer support specialist involves following up with those who have experienced crises and building relationships with community members to prevent crises from occurring in the future.
“She isn't always responding out with officers,” Hyler said. “She's more giving a lot of follow-ups and going and meeting people where they're at, literally on the street, and providing them support and getting them connected to resources so that they can live a more fulfilled life.”
The crisis unit was founded in 1973 under Mayor Howard Lee, the first Black mayor of a majority-white Southern town since Reconstruction.
Lee strongly believed that social workers should be embedded within the police department and was the first person to provide funding for the CHPD's first crisis counselor.
Since then, the unit has evolved to adopt the co-response model and provide human services for victims of domestic abuse, people with persistent mental or behavioral health issues and unsheltered people – among many more.
Burton works mainly with unsheltered people and often meets them in the street to provide them with support and resources.
On average, those experiencing homelessness in Orange County spend nearly two years without permanent shelter, and 11 percent of those who obtain housing return to homelessness within two years, according to data from the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.
Burton said her position in the crisis unit and personal experience helps people to see their potential, even when they may not have any hope left.
“I want to make an impact on people's lives by being a living example, that you can recover from being unsheltered, having a mental health diagnosis or substance abuse disorder,” she said. “It all starts with a small amount of hope.”
Edwin Fisher, a professor in UNC’s Department of Health Behavior, is the global director of the Peers for Progress organization, which connects people around the world with researchers and peer supporters.
One of the organization’s programs is the Peer Support Core at UNC, which was founded in 2020 and aims to connect students and faculty with peers on campus for support with their mental health.
Fisher said UNC’s peer support collaborative has been successful thus far and has been able to combat some of the stress the campus community feels.
“It's not proving that I don't need anything from anybody else,” he said. “It's recognizing that you may be helping me today, and I may be helping you tomorrow. And that way, we all do better.”
Research has shown that peer support has helped quell postpartum depression in mothers, bring people out of patterns of drug use and improve mental well-being of college students.
Fisher said the peer support system works well as long as the peer supporter has some important connection with the person in need of support and follows up with that person.
He said that the CHPD's crisis team adding a peer support specialist may help with the long-term goals of the unit and its patients.
“My doctor tells me that I've got to lose 20 pounds, and I say, ‘Yeah, I really do,’” he said. “For the next three days, I’m really doing very well, and then things start to fall apart a little, and I don't see my doctor again for six months. The peer supporter can follow up and help me stay with things.”
Burton said that sometimes the people she follows up with regularly wait for her on the street.
While Burton is the unit’s only peer support specialist at this time, Hyler said she hopes CHPD will be able to add more specialists in the future. She said seeing Burton work and connect with the community has been special to witness.
“I've gone out with Laverne multiple times just downtown, especially on Franklin Street,” Hyler said. “There is a group of people that wait for her to come see them every day. It's really powerful."
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