Peers Empowering Peers: The Mission Continues

Mental Health Association
November 9, 2017

Peers Empowering Peers: The Mission Continues

Trained Peer Specialists Make a Big Difference in the Lives of People with Mental Illnesses













Kristina McMillon is on a mission these days. 

The Hobe Sound, Florida resident, who attended Hawaii Pacific University, Indian River State College, and Walden University, the eight-year Navy veteran has already accomplished much in her life. She has served our nation with distinction, and has dedicated her post-Navy career to serving others in need as a special education teacher and more.

Her professional journey recently brought her to the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County (MHAPBC).

Since May 2017, she has been working at MHAPBC as a peer specialist. Along with several peer colleagues with a similar range of other professional experiences, she is now putting her own “lived experience” with a mental illness to work helping others navigate the sometimes complex pathways to recovery.

Kristina is an integral part the MHAPBC “PEP” Program. “PEP” stands for “Peers Empowering Peers.” The formal program began in early 2017 to help people with serious mental illnesses transition away from hospitals and facilities back into the mainstream of communities.

The PEP peers were invited into two Palm Beach County Hospitals – JFK and JFK North – to work as valued members of clinical care teams – alongside doctors, nurses, and other health professionals.

The pilot program that brought Kristina to JFK North was a three-way partnership among MHAPBC, HCA Healthcare – which owns and operates the two hospitals, and Mental Health America – which trained Kristina and her peers.  HCA provided some funds to support the pilot for the year, and MHAPBC obtained local foundation and grant support to augment the HCA support.

Nearly one hundred individuals were referred from the hospitals to the PEP professionals between February and November.

Some were referred from hospital inpatient units, others from emergency departments. All were adults, were identified as high-utilization patients, and had phones and addresses so that Kristina and her colleagues could keep in touch with them.

Many were very ill, and as a group had a ninety-day re-hospitalization rate of more than 42 percent before being referred to the PEP program.

Kristina and her colleagues Whitney, Michael, and Jesse met with, and provided support and encouragement to, their peers while they were still at the hospital. They then worked with them during their transition back to the community, continuing to meet with them for three months, helping them build and implement wellness and recovery plans, and connecting them to community programs as needed – including MHAPBC’s highly-regarded and peer-supervised Peer Place Support Center in West Palm Beach.

The results were dramatic:

  • Ninety-day readmission rates for PEP clients plummeted from 42 percent to 12 percent;
  • PEP clients experienced a 36 percent improvement in PHQ-9 scores – a standard measure of depression;
  • PEP clients reported a 64 percent improvement in perceived quality of life based on a Personal Outcomes Measures (POM) survey they completed.


Other anecdotal information poured in that supported these outcomes. MHAPBC CEO Pam Gionfriddo reported that “contrary to everyone’s expectations, in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricane not a single PEP client needed to be hospitalized because of the added stress.”

HCA officials were equally high on the pilot program.  Nicoletta Tessler, Psy. D., HCA Regional Vice President of Behavioral Health Services, cited the program’s “lasting impact,” and said that “there is no doubt that the peers impacted the patients in such important ways, as well as all the treatment teams who were lucky enough to have them as part of the team.”

Patrick Hendry, Vice-President of Peer Advocacy, Supports, and Services at Mental Health America added “we are thrilled to see that we have met and exceeded all of our projected outcomes.” He observed that “by working together [we] have dramatically improved outcomes for a significant majority of the individuals receiving support.”

As for Kristina’s next challenge? She’ll be continuing with the MHAPBC PEP program as it moves into its next phases.  MHAPBC has just been notified that it will receive a new grant to expand the program beyond the HCA hospitals, while HCA considers ways to build on the lessons learned to enhance peer services within its own system.

Meanwhile, Kristina has submitted the paperwork to join a growing number of peer specialists around the country as a Mental Health America nationally certified peer specialist – the most advanced peer specialist certification there is. And she’s now helping to advise and train new peers who also want to work as peer specialists.

For more information about the full range of programs offered by MHA, visit For more information about the full range of programs offered by MHAPBC, visit