PEERS appoints Lisa Smusz as new Executive Director

January 30, 2013
Written by Jenee Darden

PEERS is excited to announce that Lisa Smusz has taken the helm as the organization’s new Executive Director. Smusz has more than 15 years experience in the mental health field and is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) as well as an instructor at California State University, East Bay.

Smusz began working with PEERS as a contractor in 2001. She was later hired as the full-time Social Inclusion Campaign Program Manager in June 2010 and was subsequently promoted to the role of Associate Director.

Many years ago, Smusz heard a speech by mental health activist Jay Mahler, which inspired her to become involved with the consumer movement.

“While I was working in a mental health facility in Southern California, I experienced mental health challenges of my own for the first time,” recalled Smusz. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma if you are a professional and talk openly about having your own struggles -- so I kept silent about my personal challenges for a long time. Then I happened to go to a CASRA (California Association of Social Rehabilitation Agencies) conference where Jay Mahler was speaking, and I was blown away. In all the years I had spent in the mental health field, I had never heard about recovery, what was possible, and seen someone so fearlessly talking about their experiences. I had a 'lightbulb moment' realizing that my identity as a mental health practitioner and as a person who has recovered from mental health challenges are not mutually exclusive and incompatible, but both of those experiences have been incredibly valuable and informative.That one conference, that one speech, shifted my whole career focus.”

She then moved to the Bay Area and encountered Jay Mahler once again while serving on the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness Education at CSU East Bay.

“It was a wonderful introduction to the people who were working within both the University and mental health system and cared about the same issues I did: recovery, stigma elimination, and a more collaborative, strengths-based approach to healing,” Smusz said.

Since coming to PEERS, Smusz has been instrumental in launching the Alameda County Social Inclusion Campaign, using media and technology to spread the message about PEERS and mental health awareness, and creating a new Campus Mental Health project that integrates all of the services and programs at PEERS. These include: WRAP, peer support, social inclusion and stigma elimination, and working with Transitional Age Youth.

In addition to overseeing PEERS’ current activities, Smusz has a long list of ideas for expansion, particularly in light of the Affordable Health Care Act. She sees the bill as creating very exciting opportunities for consumers to have a significant role in delivering services in both behavioral health and primary healthcare settings.

“I'm happy to see us moving toward a more integrated approach where we recognize how important good mental health is to our physical health, and how important our physical health is to our mental health,” Smusz explained. “I want to see that ‘physical and mental health’ message be a part of not only the work we do in our communities, but also within our organization.”

Smusz recognizes the change has to start in-house. In order for PEERS to "practice what it preaches," she introduced a physical health challenge to the staff at the start of 2013. For the next six months, staff members will pursue a self-determined goal for improving their own physical health.

“My hope is that the staff experiences how important physical and mental health are to one another, so that enthusiasm for the positive changes they have experienced will come across in our work in the larger community,” Smusz said.

And while promoting physical health is important, Smusz says that eliminating mental health stigma and discrimination will continue to be at the heart of PEERS’ mission.

“We can develop wonderful holistic peer-led approaches to creating healthier individuals, families, and communities,” Smusz said. “But if the stigma surrounding mental health issues isn't also addressed, these approaches are not going to be as successful as they could be.”

Smusz’s first major role since becoming Executive Director was co-planning and organizing the PEERS staff to host the Copeland Center’s second international WRAP Around the World Conference in Oakland. Hundreds of people from around the world attended. Photos can be viewed on the PEERS Facebook page