Yale Hicks told his college friends in New Orleans that he cut short his junior year abroad in Ghana because of malaria.
“I lied to everybody, including myself,” said Hicks, who was experiencing hallucinations associated with what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. “I was about 21, and it altered my life forever, because as soon as that happened, and I was diagnosed, I started to have self-shame, self-stigma, as far as what I thought of myself in relation to this label that was put on me.”
And so began Hicks’ journey from New Orleans to Belmont, where today he is the program coordinator at Waverley Place, McLean Hospital’s community psychiatric rehabilitation program. His job: to provide peer support and guidance to people with a range of mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychotic disorders, although these labels are not used at Waverley Place.
“It may not be exactly what they’re going through, but we’ve gone through a lot of challenging experiences and have risen above, so we’re actually able to work in the field and to help those in recovery,” he said in describing the role of the five peer specialists who work in McLean programs.
Located not far from McLean’s main campus, Waverley Place is a welcoming place with art on the wall, a kitchen for healthy-living cooking lessons using vegetables grown in a nearby community garden, and opportunities for job and education counseling.
“Some folks come here for a week and find a job and don’t come back,” he said. “Some go back to school. Some stay for a long period of time. Everyone uses it differently.”
For Hicks, the help and inspiration for his career choice came through a referral to Gould Farm, a therapeutic farming community in Monterey, Massachusetts.
“Their philosophy is based on meaningful work—a community working in a beautiful environment,” he said. “It gave me a little bit of hope, like I could do something meaningful with my life.
“You’re around folks who have lived experience, supporting each other. You’re around a community of people who want to be there. After six months of working the program there and being with the community, I was like, ‘I feel better.’”
But it was not a straight path. Hicks, who had traveled to Nicaragua before his unsuccessful junior year abroad, gave in to his “adventurous spirit” and moved to California and Mexico, where a “horrible situation” led him back to Gould Farm.
“I’m going to have support, and I’m not just going to run off to some country because I think it would be fun or a good idea,” he said, and that decision led first to a job as a barista, where he regained his confidence and self-esteem and a desire to give back.
That, in turn, brought him to Boston in 2002, where a conversation with a vocational specialist led him to the Consumer Provider Program at Bunker Hill Community College, where he received training as a peer specialist. Six months of schooling was followed by a three-month internship at Waverley Place.
The road has remained bumpy. He was hospitalized. But he also graduated from Lesley University with a degree in global studies, met his wife in recovery, got married, had a daughter, gained a family and in-laws in Turkey, and travels abroad.
“Overall, it’s been such a difficult, challenging road, but I’m grateful for the awareness,” he said. “I always tell folks that it wasn’t like a lightning bolt, it was like a spark. It gave me the hope that I could actually do something meaningful with my life and achieve my dreams.”
Waverley Place was founded in 2001 thanks to a $12.1 million anonymous gift.