A few years ago, Robin Simon wasn’t sure she’d ever work again. She dreamt of doing advocacy work for people with mental illness, but thought her own psychiatric history would keep her in treatment–and out of the workplace. But thanks to a “peer specialist” training program, Simon is an advocate at Club Access, a Lower East Side resource center for people with psychiatric disabilities. Simon helps her peers deal with benefits, roommates and other problems. “I’ve had experiences with side effects of meds, and I can say ‘Yeah, I’ve been there,’” she says. “Providers can’t.”
Simon got her training through a unique internship program for people with mental illnesses at the Howie the Harp Advocacy Center on Stanton Street in Manhattan. Howie–his real name was Howard Geld–was a mean harmonica player with an eighth grade education who became a patient advocate in the 1970s. With his own history of mental illness, Geld believed that people who have been through the psychiatric system make ideal advocates and social workers. Geld, who was also the director of Club Access, founded the center that bears his name shortly before his death in 1995.
The Howie the Harp center prepares students for outreach, counseling, advocacy, and case management jobs. It offers more than 100 hours of classroom training on everything from legal entitlements and cultural sensitivity to stress management, followed by hands-on internship work. And it provides job search assistance and support groups.
Simon has begun educating hospital workers on how to treat patients more considerately. “I don’t want anyone to experience what I went through,” she says. “It was devastating.”