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In one Ohio county, peers are filling in the gaps of behavioral health care

Two women stand with their hands on either side of a brown horse. The horse looks into the camera.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Two women groom a horse at Stockhands Horses for Healing. The horses are part of an equine therapy program there, helping everyone from kids with autism to veterans with PTSD.

Ohio’s behavioral health care system is stretched thin.

Between 2013 and 2019, demand for behavioral health services in the state soared 350%, according to the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and it’s continuing to climb.

But the behavioral health workforce isn’t keeping up, leaving millions of Ohioans without access to behavioral health professionals.

“We are in a mental health crisis,” said Diane Bricker, executive director of Safe Harbor Peer Support Services in central Ohio’s Delaware and Morrow Counties.

The Health Resources and Services Administration classifies 75 of Ohio’s 88 counties as ‘mental health professional’ shortage areas. As of 2022, less than a third of Ohioans in those areas had their behavioral health needs met.

Without enough counselors and therapists to meet demand, people in need of mental health or addiction services sometimes have to wait extended periods of time to get professional help.

Some places are getting creative to fill in that gap.

Horses for healing

Inside a horse barn in Delaware County, a white mare stretches her head out of a stall in search of a neck rub. Another perks up its ears looking for a snack. At the end of the line, one horse sways, swinging its head left and right.

“Stanley has a little bit of anxiety,” said Tim Funk, the executive director of this barn, Stockhands Horses for Healing. “That's why he's weaving back and forth.”

Funk takes care of Stanley and the 31 other horses here, but he and the horses also help take care of people via equine therapy. The horses work with everyone from kids with autism to veterans with PTSD.

Stanley is particularly helpful to some people, Funk said.

“We can use this in our peer support program,” he said. “What are some ways that we can help him calm down or some things that we can help him with to help him work through that anxiety?”

Matt Larcom first discovered Stockhands Horses for Healing when he was at a low point — drinking alcohol to the point that he was getting in trouble with the law.

A white horse pulls a small buggy. Two men in helmets ride in it.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Two people ride in a buggy pulled behind a white horse at Stockhands Horses for Healing.

“My recovery journey has been a long, rocky one,” Larcom said. “I battled alcoholism on and off for 20 years. I've been incarcerated multiple times. I've been hospitalized multiple times. I've been institutionalized multiple times.

“I felt like I was falling through the cracks.”

That’s when he found Safe Harbor Peer Support Services, which hosts regular outings to the horse barn.

Safe Harbor is a drop-in center open Monday through Friday. When Larcom needed help in between therapist appointments, that’s where he found it from certified peer supporters.

Peer support services

Peer support is exactly what it sounds like — leaning on the support of people with similar lived experiences to help deal with behavioral health issues.

“A lot of times, peers feel more comfortable working with someone who's been there and done that,” Bricker said.

In the midst of a provider shortage, she says peer support services are needed now more than ever.

“We can be the bridge or the gap filler for folks that are waiting to see their therapists,” she said.

But peer support is more than a gap filler. It’s proven to be highly effective.

“Peer support really was the harbinger to my success."
Matt Larcom, peer supporter

“If [someone] gets linked with us right after they get out of the psychiatric hospital, the chances of them going back are reduced by 56%,” Bricker said.

Peer support has been shown to decrease psychotic symptoms and depression, to improve self esteem, and to promote longer lasting recoveries.

Matt Larcom knows this first hand: he’s celebrating more than three years of sobriety.

“Peer support really was the harbinger to my success,” he said.

Now, the state is leaning in. Since 2016, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services certified thousands of peer supporters and hosted hundreds of training sessions.

Larcom signed up, and he’s now a certified peer supporter himself — sharing his experiences with others, connecting them with resources like equine therapy that have helped him, and encouraging more people on their path to recovery.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.