MILWAUKEE — A recent University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate created a program to help support LGBTQ youth – both mentally and emotionally - and it launched statewide in the middle of the pandemic.
It’s called PRISM, which stands for Peer Recover in Supportive Mutuality.
It’s the brainchild of Erica Steib, who came up with the concept for her final project while studying at UWM’s Zilber School of Public Health.
PRISM was put into use by the organization Mental Health America of Wisconsin.
“It’s a safe place to explore concepts around identity and mental health,” Steib said.
Steib is leading a team of seven certified peer support specialists, including Jay Zulhlke.
“It is so important to have someone to talk to who gets it,” Zuhlke said. “You can be authentically you.”
They monitor a phone line and email account and guarantee a response within hours to provide support to anyone who reaches out. Through text messaging, phone calls, virtual, and in-person meet-ups, the peer support specialist helps that person navigate challenges and goals. More importantly, the peer support specialist is someone to talk to about anything, without judgement.
“We can talk about anything,” Zuhlke said. “What it’s like coming out to your family, what it’s like coming out at a job, what it’s like coming out to friends.”
It's a job that hits home for Zuhlke, who is studying social work at UWM.
“I came out as trans about two years ago,” Zuhlke said. “Throughout growing up, and high school especially, it would have been nice to have someone I could go to. So often I was just isolating myself about it. I didn’t want to talk about. I didn’t think anyone would understand. The PRISM peer support specialists do get it. We are here and we will help you along this journey. Sit with you, listen to you, whatever you need, we're going to be there to support you through it.”
That kind of support has never been more critical, according to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.
It found 42 percent of LGBTQ youth across the country, between the ages of 13 and 24, seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.
Seventy percent say their mental health was poor most of the time, or always during the pandemic.
“Being isolated with the people you're living with, like your family or friends, can be really damaging if they don't know you're out, because then you're almost forced to have to stay this person that you're not all the time,” Zuhlke said. “It makes those feelings of being alone even stronger. "
The same national study found 48 percent of the LGBTQ youth surveyed, wanted counseling in the past year, but were unable to receive it.
While PRISM was created specifically to serve young adults between the ages of 16 to 26, Steib has been surprised at how many older LGBTQ adults are reaching out.
“We’re getting calls from older generations who live in more suburban or rural areas,” Steib said. “They’re also looking for community, and to make sense of their identities.”
Steib says this corresponds to a shortage of LGBTQ-specific therapists and counselor, who can often provide more targeted and supportive care around sexual and gender identity.
“Where the mental health conversation needs to go next, is around addressing things like homophobia, transphobia, racism, and sexism in our society,” Steib said. “These things majorly impact mental health, and that's where I think people are starting to find the language to describe that and understand how much it impacts them.”
To talk to one of the peer support specialists:
- call 414-336-7974 anytime
- email PRISM@MHAWISCONSIN.ORG
- send a direct message to "The Prism Program" on Facebook or Instagram