VA Palo Alto Health Care System
A Peer Support Specialist’s Story of Recovery
Working at a large health care system has its perks. During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, I had the pleasure to sit down with a group of Veterans at the VA Palo Alto Mental Health Clinic who were about to be treated to an inspirational talk by Mr. Ren Kramer, a Peer Support Specialist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.
In the VA, Peer Support Specialists are Veterans with lived mental health experience. They serve as role models by sharing their personal recovery stories, showing that recovery from mental illness is possible.
When I entered the therapy room, nine Veterans, mostly men, were sitting in a half circle, enjoying chocolate and tangerines that were brought in by one of the psychologists at the facility. The atmosphere was relaxed and the Veterans were ready to listen to Mr. Kramer’s talk.
Mr. Kramer greeted everyone and introduced himself with a summary of his own experience as a Veteran who received inpatient mental health services, first at Stanford, then VA.
Just eight years ago, Mr. Kramer was suffering from severe addictive behavior and suicidal thoughts.
In his darkest days he would get addicted to anything and did not know how to stop it. He did not like the person he saw in the mirror every morning and would easily get mad at himself. Others referred to him as a ‘runaway freight train’ that was fueled by anger and rage.
When he hit rock bottom, he realized that he couldn’t help himself and needed to reach out to others for support.
"Developing a support system is what saves everyone, and there is nobody in this room who can’t develop a support system."
Mr. Kramer’s path to recovery from deep depression and suicidal thoughts was long but, in the end, very fruitful. When he came to the VA, he spent a total of 210 days in the Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program (HVRP). It took him 62 days just to realize that he really wanted to be there. After that, things got easier.
Being surrounded by competent VA staff and other Veterans with similar stories allowed him to connect and build a strong support system. He was able to build relationships with people of diverse backgrounds that he would not have developed otherwise.
“For the first time I felt like I belonged here, just like I felt when I was in the Service,” Mr. Kramer said about his days in the HVRP Program.
He emphasized the importance of a support system.
“Developing a support system is what saves everyone, and there is nobody in this room who can’t develop a support system,” Mr. Kramer told his nodding listeners.
“People come back to the program because they broke off of their support system,” he said. “If you isolate, you have nobody to run your ideas by.”
After getting out of the program, Mr. Kramer immediately hooked up with people like him and worked with them to improve their lives. He gave back to others by volunteering and taking courses to become a WRAP Facilitator. Going to WRAP conferences representing the VA has helped him immensely.
According to Mr. Kramer, therapy, mindfulness, family, friends and faith all play important roles in maintaining mental health.
“You can live a full life pursuing your goals. You do not need to let the illness define you or what you can do. Don’t ignore the illness, but work around the limitations,” he said, “There is no magic pill to heal, it’s all up to you!”
The talk concluded with a short question-and-answer session and applause by the group.
If you would like to learn more about mental health services offered at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, visit the Peer Support Services website.