Faces of Carson: In Moments of Crisis, Peers Lead the Way

Editor’s Note: Our Faces of Carson feature shares experiences from the perspective of Behavioral Health Network’s caregivers and program directors in helping individuals and families in our community.

The Living Room at BHN, a space for individuals to visit while in crisis, relies on the work of ‘peers’ who provide guidance and resources to individuals in crisis, and who have experienced and overcome crises of their own. Iris Garcia, a peer specialist at the Living Room, provides a look into her own crisis, which led to her involvement here, highlighting the unique skills and perspective peer specialists are equipped with in order to guide individuals through life’s most difficult moments.

Iris was born and raised in the Dominican Republic and battled depression from an early age.

Left untreated, her depression became so severe that she dropped out of high school, which led to her becoming, in her words, “the black sheep of the family.”

Iris’s dream was to move to the United States, and insisted to her parents that “the US will be my chance,” in order to seek treatment for her depression, pursue an education, and, ultimately, live “a better life than I could in the DR.” Though initially resistant to the idea, eventually her parents agreed. However, upon immigrating to the US, Iris’s life did not get easier at first. “The first two years of living in the US were hell,” she admits. “The culture shock was severe, my English wasn’t good so I was very isolated — I would spend days in bed and the only time I left my apartment was to pick up my antidepressants.”

By the time she was 17, Iris had had enough — “I woke up one day and said ‘I’m done feeling this way.’” Soon after, Iris completed her General Educational Development (GED) and enrolled at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). Inspired by her mother’s work as a physician in the DR, Iris enrolled in STCC’s Early Childhood
program, stating, “I wanted to help people because I grew up watching my mom help people going through their lowest points in life.”
After her fourth semester at STCC, Iris transferred to Bay Path University in Longmeadow in order to pursue a degree in psychology. At Bay Path, “I was so fascinated with everything I was learning about human psychology, and I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to gain real-world, work experience in this field,” she recounts. During her junior year, she applied to become a Peer Specialist at the Living Room. “When I interviewed with Justin [Mehl], I realized that a lot of people who seek care at the Living Room are dealing with things like substance abuse,
homelessness — things I’ve never experienced personally.” However, “Justin ended up hiring me because I was willing to learn these things,” she says.
Now a year and a half into her role as a Peer Specialist, Iris has found her calling.

“Though the work can be emotionally exhausting at times, I absolutely love our mission,” she enthuses. “As Peer Specialists, we know the system, so we can play a significant role in helping these people receive the resources and treatment they need,” she continues, “it’s truly amazing to help others by telling your own story, by giving them hope and showing them ‘Hey, I was in your shoes too, and I’m standing here telling you, if I can overcome, you can too.’ We’re living examples of successfully overcoming tragic circumstances.”

Iris’s passion is also fueled by her strong belief in the Living Room’s mission; “The results we see here are a drastic difference compared to someone seeking help at an emergency room. We’re preventing people from becoming stuck in the system. We’re breaking the cycle.” Reflecting on her own journey to this point, Iris smiles and says, “I’ve changed a lot, and BHN has been a big part of that change, allowing me to pursue my passion and surrounding me with people who constantly believe in me and support me.”

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