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    Lift UP SF Empowers Behavioral Health Consumers

    By Brett Andrews–

    San Francisco has remarkably low unemployment overall at 1.9%. That prosperity and stability are not shared equitably across our community. A high cost of living, driven primarily by housing expenses, is straining many of our longtime residents and San Francisco’s most vulnerable groups.

    African Americans and other communities of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities, people with behavioral health disorders, and people living with HIV are all overrepresented among those who are unemployed. People in these groups also bring home lower than average salaries, placing them at high risk for displacement and homelessness. Thus, it’s no surprise when it’s these same groups of people that are overrepresented among San Francisco’s unhoused. But that’s not all. People with lower incomes also have significantly higher rates, two to three times, of mental health issues and disorders.

    It’s a circular argument Lift UP SF (Lifting Up Peers for a Brighter Tomorrow) and integrated service providers like PRC seek to disrupt. Instead of holding people back because they’ve had difficult experiences, integrated services acknowledge we are all whole people with interrelated challenges and interrelated strengths. We build them together. 

    Lift UP SF is a shining example of this integration at work. It puts behavioral health consumers—people in and exiting mental health and substance use treatment programs, but also their family members and caregivers—on a living wage career track. It empowers them to frame and professionalize this “lived experience” through a comprehensive training curriculum, peer group support services, traineeships, and individualized placement support. At PRC over 30 trainees, graduates, and family members of substance use and mental health treatment services are currently on-track through Lift UP SF to secure professional roles like Social and Human Service Assistants, Case Workers, Case Managers, Client Advocates, Family Self-Sufficiency Specialists, and Independent Living Specialists, among others.

    But it’s the multifaceted value-add proposition that makes integrated strategies so impactful. Leveraging the experience of people with lived experience in mental health, substance use, and public health systems doesn’t just make sense; it’s proven to result in better outcomes for consumers on both sides of the interaction. First, paid or volunteer employment—community engagement, a sense of belonging, and mutual responsibility—is a key component of successful recovery from mental health and substance use disorders, particularly methamphetamine addiction.

    Second, peer specialists with lived experience also have a unique credibility and capacity to support those struggling to see their way through to another day of sobriety or treatment: sharing the same vocabulary and embodying an accessible vision of success.

    Third, this type of job training program critically reaches into those most experiencing under/unemployment and provides more than a living wage; an increasing economic outlook seeds hope, and a career trajectory positions behavioral health consumers to make the most successful transition into healthy and independent living.

    Fourth, not only are we excited to see decreased unemployment among Bay Area residents impacted by mental illness, substance use disorder, and HIV/AIDS on the horizon, but also expedited treatment program and supported living exits make room for more people to access San Francisco’s needed, but limited, treatment services.

    Finally, in San Francisco, we are in dire need of qualified, compassionate professionals ready to dive in and help the San Francisco Bay Area and its public and nonprofit health service providers to address our city’s most pressing issues. The worker shortage in behavioral health settings across San Francisco is harming the people we most need to support, and cyclical problems require bold moves.

    San Francisco needs more investments like this, strategies that reach vulnerable populations on multiple levels build sustainable solutions from the inside and out. Lift UP SF is a drop in the bucket, but I’m proud to be lifting up a diverse, representative pool of qualified, culturally competent health and social service sector employees.

    With more than 17 partners—from Castro Country Club and the City of San Francisco Community Behavioral Health Services to Native American Health Center, Mission Neighborhood Health Center, and Alameda and Contra Costa County Behavioral Health Programs—signed on and seeking to fill peer staffing shortages through Lift UP SF, I’m feeling optimistic. Let’s build on that.

    Leading PRC since 2003, Brett Andrews has overseen PRC’s evolution from a small HIV/AIDS legal service agency to an integrated social and behavioral health provider bent on fighting poverty, stigma and isolation by uplifting marginalized adults and affecting the social conditions of health. He holds an M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from George Washington University, received the San Francisco Pride Celebration’s Heritage Award for 10+ years of service in 2017, and was appointed to the San Francisco Mayor’s Methamphetamine Task Force.

    Published on February 27, 2020