Judy Kirby works as a Certified Peer Supporter and ASIST trainer with Lifewise. Lifewise Mental Health Services (formerly Channal) is the only provincial organization in Newfoundland & Labrador created by and for individuals living with mental health and addictions issues. They exist to support and encourage individual recovery through self-determination, while working to break the stigma surrounding these issues in society.
Lifewise is working towards a society where individuals living with mental health and addictions issues receive the services, supports, and tools required to live their lives free from stigma and isolation. They offer peer support, public education, advocacy, and community engagement as well as policy consultation.
With the current focus around mental health and substance use in the province we were eager to sit down with Judy to learn more about the great work she does, how she spends her downtime and what she loves about our community!
Judy, can you tell us about yourself, your history and what led you to choose a career in mental health and substance use?
Well I feel like I didn’t choose this career, I was sort of guided toward it! I’ve lived with depression for all of my adult life and I was raised to keep that quiet and just “get on with it”. I have always had a great work ethic and consistently pushed myself because I had children and I wanted them to be proud of me. That’s one of the reasons I went to Keyin College when I was 42 and got a diploma in Business/HR Management. When I realized that my children were dealing with some of their own mental health issues, I knew I wanted to speak up and try and help end the stigma so they wouldn’t feel so alone or think that they couldn’t live a good life. I started using Lifewise services when my mental health and stress forced me to take time off in 2019. I enjoyed the peer support groups and felt that being able to talk about things with other people who understood made so much difference and it was like a weight was lifted off me.
How do you think your own life experiences prepared you for this career?
I like to think that I was training for this career my whole life! I never really considered myself a “helper” but I love talking about things that others don’t normally like to talk about. I try to normalize speaking about “life stuff” and learning from others about how they coped with things that most of us try to shove down rather than deal with. Talking and sharing some of our own struggles lets people know that they are not alone in what they’re going through and we can live a happy, productive life.
Can you describe what Peer Support means?
The definition is “...the act of supporting one another through the connection of similar experiences with no hierarchy or power dynamics.” This means that when we support someone, we relate in some way because we have lived experience. We never tell people what they need to do to move forward. People know themselves better than anyone. They just need a sounding board. Having another person listen to your story without judgment and empathize without giving advice, is a really powerful thing. It can instill hope in someone where they may have lost that. I’ve learned a lot about myself in supporting peers and it’s just more of a give and take than one would have with a counselor or therapist.
Can you describe what being a Certified Peer Supporter entails? What does your day look like?
Obtaining the certification is a lengthy process. We have to do a week-long training where we learn the “basics” of peer support and we learn a lot about ourselves. A written exam is completed after the training and then we move on to shadowing someone on the WarmLine and also doing “one on one” peer support with a mentor present before we can do them on our own. We have to do a specific number of “one on ones” with different peers in order to get certification. Shadowing peer support groups is another requirement as well as facilitator training and there’s always lots of training to be done. It takes anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to complete the training and obtain the certification.
Every day can look different because we can play different roles. Some days I’m on the Provincial WarmLine taking calls from peers across the province and across the country! We have recently partnered with Wellness Together Canada to offer Peer Support to even more people. We have in-person and online Peer Support groups and we also do our share of one on one support. We may also be involved in Public Education and do training for different organizations or community partners. There’s a lot happening at Lifewise!
Judy Kirby at Lifewise
How does an individual begin to work with Lifewise to receive Peer Support?
The short answer to this is to pick up the phone and call the WarmLine! Whoever you speak with on the line can let you know what other services we offer and what might be a good fit for you. Sometimes just calling and talking to someone on the phone might be all a person needs and sometimes if they click with a certain peer supporter they can be set up for “one on ones” or decide they’d like to come to a group and check it out. There are lots of options!
What is ASIST Training? Who would benefit from completing it?
ASIST training is Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training and anyone can benefit from this training. It gives people the skills they need to help someone who is having thoughts of suicide and/or maybe at risk of suicide. I highly recommend the training and I’m very proud that I was given the opportunity to become a trainer.
Can you talk a little bit about what other services are offered through Lifewise and what the organization is doing in the community?
We offer various training and presentations to community organizations. Some of our staff also sit on boards to include that voice of lived experience and hopefully have a say in decision-making when it comes to ending the stigma and understanding what works for people living with mental health and addictions. We also have peer supporters currently working at Doorways, the Waterford, and on FACT and ACT teams all across the province. We are also just launching a WarmLine specifically for First Responders. Just from my own lived experience, peer support can ease some of the pressure on waitlists for counselors and therapists.
We like to throw in a couple of fun questions for our readers here! Can you tell us if you were trapped on a deserted island what three items would you hope to have with you?
I would say a journal and a good pen for sure and something that I can listen to music on!
What's the next thing on your bucket list?
My bucket list keeps growing! I love road trips and concerts and travel in general. My very next thing is a trip to Halifax to see the Doobie Brothers in October (I’m an old lady!) and in November 2024 I’m doing a 13 day cruise that will sail out of Portugal (I’m a grateful old lady!)
Now for our shameless small business plug. Ha! What do you love most about Johnny Ruth?
I love that Johnny Ruth is not just a clothing store, but more of an eclectic place that has something for everyone! The layout is fantastic and the vibe is fun and it’s community minded. AND my daughter works there!
What do you like to do in your downtime?
I like to walk, spend time in nature - specifically near the ocean or in the park. I love road trips and I love to journal. It helps me get thoughts out of my head and onto paper which is helpful for knowing what’s “real” and what’s just a silly thought or story that I’m telling myself. It’s important to know the difference!
We have a lot of Come From Away’s that visit with us and follow us so we are going to throw in a tourism question to lure them back. HA! Can you tell us what is your favorite thing about living and working here in Newfoundland?
Besides being near the ocean, I guess my favorite thing about living and working in Newfoundland is the people. We always hear about the kindness of Newfoundlanders and although we all have our different struggles, when it comes down to it I feel like we take care of each other.
Now back to it! Even though we’ve seen some work in the areas of reducing stigma towards mental health and substance use, it's still quite prevalent. What are some ways that organizations like Lifewise are doing to reduce stigma in the province?
Being involved in the community, working with partners to offer training and education to businesses, organizations and to keep the conversations going not just one day a year but every day of the year! Employing a full staff that has lived experience with mental health and/or addictions, from our Executive Director to our Front Line workers, is a testament to the fact that we can be open about our own experience and also be productive members of society. We need to keep speaking up to not only reduce, but erase the stigma.
We know that substance use often is linked to mental health issues and trauma. What words of hope can you provide anyone currently struggling?
Although it sounds cliche, you are not alone. There is help out there if you reach out and ask for it. There’s no shame in asking for help and talking it out with someone who gets it is not as hard as you might think. It does get better.
We’ve recently seen numerous news stories discussing the mental health and the substance use crisis in our province and we are seeing more and more concerned people who want to help make positive changes come forward. How might members of the community like myself gain accurate education and what is the best thing(s) we can do for those members of our community that may be struggling through mental illness, addictions or trauma?
Find an organization like Lifewise who can offer Mental Health First Aid training and ASIST training so you know how to help someone who’s struggling. Find out how to use a Naloxone kit and have them on hand so you’re comfortable using them if you need to. Check out Bridge the Gap or the Thrive website. Understanding that people need compassion and understanding and not judgment is the first step to supporting anyone.
This is a loaded question I’m sure but in your opinion what is the biggest challenge right now and what would you like to see happen to better address the mental health and substance use issues in this province?
It sure is a loaded question! In my opinion the biggest challenge right now is housing. If someone doesn’t have a roof over their head and a safe place to go, they may feel like there’s no point in getting help.
Having a safe place to live is in my opinion, one of the biggest challenges for so many people now and it’s actually causing mental health issues. I would love to see our government investing in more housing. There are so many unused buildings that could be fixed up to offer living quarters to many people.
I think investing in this rather than paying thousands of dollars to various landlords to house a homeless person for a night with no opportunity for a meal or anything sustainable is just a waste of resources. Imagine having buildings with bed-sitting rooms for people with mental health and addiction issues where there is supportive staff and 3 meals a day? And counselors and Nurse Practitioners on staff who meet with people to help them with life skills, health care and getting a better education to help find employment. I might be a dreamer but I think this is do-able.
I’ve heard from others that working in mental health and/or substance use is such needed work and rewarding but also can be very consuming and draining as well. What do you do to take care of your own mental health?
I do some of the things that I mentioned earlier; getting outside, journaling and talking things out with a friend or co-worker. Talking things out is so important! If I hold things in and try to deal with it on my own, I know I will end up down a rabbit hole! Eating well and getting some movement in there is also important. I’m a work in progress and I remind myself of that every day!
For anyone interested in pursuing this career path can you share with us what background and/or training you completed to become a Certified Peer Supporter and ASIST Trainer?
Lived experience with mental health and/or addictions is the biggest qualification. I think the fact that I consider myself a lifelong learner and I’m very willing to share my story to help others was also helpful. I have post secondary education but if that helped me in any way to become a peer supporter it was only that I’m teachable. If anyone is interested, I think attending our peer support groups, taking MHFA and/or ASIST training shows people that you do have an interest in helping others. I was offered the opportunity to become an ASIST trainer since I’ve been working at Lifewise. I’m not sure how I would have gotten that training if I wasn’t working there.
For anyone struggling with mental health or substance use, what are some steps they can take to seek help?
Talk to someone! I can’t stress it enough. I know from experience that it’s so hard to admit you need help and it was embarrassing for me to admit as an adult who looked like she had it all together! But once you reach out there is help out there. I’ve spoken to people on the WarmLine who were on a waitlist to see a psychologist or counselor and said that they didn’t realize how much talking to someone anonymously who wasn’t judgemental helped them feel better. And by reaching out to that one person, you can start on a path of finding other ways of getting help. It’s a journey for sure but you don’t have to walk it alone.
Some of the Lifewise team
Left to right: Sher Warren - Public Education Officer, Jimmy Bonnell - Certified Peer Supporter with Doorways, Brad Glynn - Executive Director, Judy Kirby - Certified Peer Supporter and ASSIST Trainer, Meghan Riggs-Communications and Fund Development, Sarah White- Provincial Operations Manager
If you are needing support Call the Lifewise WarmLine 1-855-753-2560 for support in English or 1-833-753-5460 for support in French. The Lifewise team offers support and information 7 days a week, 10AM-12AM.