Bridging mental health support and clinical care with peer specialists

Peer support from those who have been there

Niquita Ervine knows the value of shared experiences. When she was 25, Niquita was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Through her journey, she recalls feeling overwhelmed and worried about how her diagnosis would impact her life.

“I started to get curious about what caused it and I went back to school to get my degree in psychology,” she said. “I wanted to help remove those stigmas that are placed on mental health so I help people come to a realization that you can overcome and you can live a successful life.”

Now, as a peer support specialist on the Optum Behavioral Health team, she’s able to help others — oftentimes with high needs — on their own path. Her own experience helps to inform her role and provide a level of compassion for the patients she connects with.

“You need someone who has walked a mile in your shoes to say, ‘Listen, I’ve been where you are.' You can’t do everything by yourself. Everyone needs some help,” Niquita said. 

Over her six years as a peer support specialist, Niquita has helped hundreds of patients. She connects them to health care services, advocates for them and understands their stories. Above all, she can serve as an empathetic role model and prove that recovery is possible.

One of those patients is Ashley Beenau, a UnitedHealthcare member with multiple chronic illnesses and clinical depression who, before Niquita’s help, was frequently in the emergency room.

Niquita worked closely with Ashley to ensure she was receiving the proper care and had access to the resources and education she needed to be successful in her treatment.

“I just call her when I need her,” Ashley said. “She’s pretty awesome.”

Since developing a relationship with Niquita, Ashley has had zero hospital readmissions. Her confidence and self-esteem have also greatly improved.

Gregg Sherrill, clinical director for UnitedHealthcare of Texas, said peer specialists like Niquita are critical to help bridge the gap that can exist between medical care and behavioral health support.

“I think Niquita and peers like her are that space between the two,” he said. “They help that whole health recovery model flow from both sides.”

Through her work, Niquita is helping to eliminate the burdens and stigma around behavioral health disorders — ultimately leading to better health outcomes and simpler experiences. Person-to-person peer support specialists are a crucial part of empowering others and can demonstrate that recovery is possible.

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