JLUSA leader Philip Cooper on mental health and recovery

October 10, 2023

JLUSA leader Philip Cooper (Leading with Conviction™ 2022) sat down last year with Policy Research Associates to talk about his lived experience and work around mental health. Here’s some of what he shared:

Voices of Affrilachia is a state-funded initiative focused on ending the mental health stigma in the Black communities of western North Carolina. The state offers a certified peer support specialist credential, while various community colleges and state universities offer a community health worker credential, and we’ve found that people who have these credentials often have the skill sets we need among our staff. We recruit and mentor Black peer support specialists coming into the field, which advances two of our goals beyond supporting reentry generally.

First, we aim to diversify the mental health workforce, leveraging the existing credentialing systems to advance a more inclusive group. Second, we want to end the stigma around mental health in the Black communities in western North Carolina. In my role with the Voices of Affrilachia, I oversee the work of two community health workers who are also peer support specialists who provide reentry support to people leaving North Carolina state prisons. …

For years, I have leveraged my lived experience as a service recipient as well as a service provider to address the gaps in services for people who are returning to society, whether that means returning from treatment or returning from prison. …

We have a “boots on the ground model” to maintain working relationships with the other area service providers. This allows us to determine in a personalized way if an area is appropriate for an individual to come back to, so we can avoid major barriers before they pop up. For instance, if we know the person needs continuity of care for mental and substance use disorders, but an area doesn’t offer any of those services, relocation only makes sense if they have transportation to where the services are available. You must consider those social drivers that impact health, like transportation. …

While I was in prison, I went through a treatment program called “A New Direction,” which is a 90-day program that could potentially knock 30 days off your sentence. Before I started the program, I was getting high while I was in prison, and as a result of getting caught I had to go to the hole (segregation) a couple of times. While in the hole I thought to myself, “Come on man, this isn’t living.” After that, I started going to the recovery meetings and started to take a role as a leader within the group, so much so that I was recruited to be a peer counselor within the prison—that was how I started as a peer counselor, with A New Direction.

I specialized in working with the younger adults and providing support to them while they were in the dorm. I tried spreading my knowledge and support to those that would give me their time. That is when I learned that some people want to change, and they will give an inkling of their willingness to you and see if you will respond to it. It was a natural role for me, and it felt like it was my calling. I knew then that I was going to be a bridge for people. I am that X-factor: I am a young Black man with a criminal history, but I am smart enough to maneuver around different rooms by just being myself.

When George Floyd was murdered, people’s eyes started opening and people were like, “We need to get more feedback from folks,” and they started to reach out to people like me. I am just going to continue to share my truths, because they can end up saving someone else—not just people in recovery but also the people leaving incarceration and looking for meaningful employment. People like me need to be plugged into their network and stay open-minded. Never let the accolades or accomplishments make you forget where you came from. It is all God. God put these people in my life to hold me accountable and charge my battery. Don’t ever shortchange recovery, be consistent with your message, and be around people that celebrate you. This is challenging work, and there are times when my presence is not celebrated, so it is important and healthy to offset that by being around people that do celebrate you.

Read the full interview.

(Photo above courtesy of Operation Gateway)

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