Updated: Mar 8, 2021
An interview with Peer Support Space, Inc co-founder, Yasmin Flasterstein by Elizabeth Harris.
Yasmin Flasterstein (she/her) is a Co-Founder and Executive Director of Peer Support Space. If you do a quick Google search, you will find that she speaks out for crime survivors, her story was read into the congressional record for Women’s History Month, she is a founding member of the Orlando Trans Collective, and that she sits on multiple mental health peer-focused boards in Florida.
She is an incredible woman who is taking experiences of trauma and distress and creating peer communities to foster recovery, acceptance, and growth. She also uses her platform to destigmatize mental health within LGBTQ+, Latinx, and Black communities while advocating for a mental health system that provides quality services where no communities are left behind.
We got to speak with Yasmin about her experience and how we can work towards being allies and support the communities around us.
Yasmin, you have done so much for mental health advocacy. How did this passion and work begin?
I think I always struggled with my own mental health but didn’t understand the language to express my grapples with it until I was older. Mental illness aside, we all have mental health. Fitting in was never easy for me. I didn’t have the “picture perfect” family, I was bisexual, a minority religion for my area, mixed-race and moved so many times to so many small towns I never felt like I fully fit into any crowd.
Initially, I got into mental health advocacy because I was advocating for my brother and the negative experiences he had with the mental health system. As I advanced professionally, I had the privilege to meet so many bravely vulnerable individuals. As an empath, I absorbed their deep pain, and it fueled me to want to create a world where individuals didn’t have to struggle alone, where it was okay to reach out for help, and where that help was available.
I didn’t have my own major mental health breakdown until I was in my twenties and already extremely involved in the mental health field. In retrospect, I had a lot of trauma growing up, maybe it was internalized stigma, my naive childlike energy, or constantly looking out for my brother which made me overlook my own struggles. When I was twenty-two, I began experiencing flashbacks to a trauma I experienced when I was seventeen.
Weird right? There was no obvious trigger, trauma can just be weird like that sometimes. It made previous experiences that seemed like distant memories feel vivid and present. I could no longer sleep, I was scared all the time, and I no longer took any interest in activities I used to enjoy. My partner at the time couldn’t support me through it (insert overwhelming feeling of being “too broken” to be loved that would follow me) and I ended up single and totally alone during what was the hardest time of my life.
To make matters worse, in the next 3 months, I experienced gun violence, sexual assault, robbery, witnessed a friend die by suicide, and got into a car accident that would leave me without my main coping skill of dance. I was this face of mental health advocacy, a community leader and advocate, but I couldn’t keep it together myself. I didn’t want to die, but I was exhausted from feeling so constantly terrified, frustrated by my memory gaps, and felt suffocated by my inability to express what I was going through without dance. I wasn’t sure how to help myself at that moment, but with my other coping skills unavailable with my new mobility impairments, I began to heal through helping and from it found healing for myself.
Wow, that’s an incredible story. Then in 2019, you started Peer Support Space, Inc with Dandelion Hill. What inspired both of you to start it?
Dandelion (they/them) and myself were both inspired by our personal and professional experiences to start Peer Support Space.
Dandelion is a survivor of domestic violence, childhood sexual assault, and suicidality. I am a suicide survivor, and live with cPTSD, Dissociative Disorder, mobility impairments, and a traumatic brain injury. While we both share unique and personal stories, we both felt peer services - human connection and knowing we were not alone - kept us alive during our darkest moments struggling with suicidality.
I met Dandelion when we worked together on a program that was created in response to the tragedy at Pulse nightclub, to help provide free counseling to those affected directly or indirectly. Dandelion started the program and I was their assistant and eventually took over as they started a new career path working as a peer specialist. Those affected by the tragedy were predominantly from LGBTQ+, Latinx and Black communities. We had to work extremely hard to find therapists who were trauma-informed, LGBTQ+ affirming, and experienced with working with Black and/or Latinx communities. What I found was that for many, it didn’t matter that free counseling was available. There was such a history of distrust in the mental health system for these communities, compounded with stigma about reaching out for help, that individuals naturally turned to one another for support even though we were offering free counseling.
During this same time, I was working additionally as a supervisor at a residential treatment center, this was a clinical role and I was not allowed to personally disclose, as well as part time overseeing a peer program at a nonprofit, where I was supported in personally disclosing. I noticed the juxtaposing reactions I would get from individuals in the clinical setting, “who the heck is this little girl telling me what to do”, verses when I worked in a peer setting and would share parts of myself and people would open up in ways I had never seen before.
I had spent my whole life pissed off at the mental health system. I nearly didn’t get into the mental health field because I didn’t want to touch what was such a broken system that lacked the services to prevent crisis and repeatedly had individuals falling through the cracks, gaslighting them into feeling like it was their fault and not the system’s. When systems are broken, communities turn to one another for support. I began learning about peer-led organizations, organizations led for and by individuals with their own mental health challenges, and was amazed. These peer services were filling SO many gaps of the mental health system that I spent years upset about. I finally had a solution, one that could focus on communities most often left behind, for what cost less than crisis services and could help avoid reaching a point of crisis.
I reached out to Dandelion saying I had no plan and no money, asking if they wanted to work full time. I knew they had experience building a program from the ground up, that they were as passionate as I am about the broken state of the mental health system, and that they were one of only a few Nationally Certified Peer Specialists in the state of Florida. I had some business savvy but was actually really new to peer services. I needed Dandelion to be the moral compass of the organization, guiding us in a way that embraces the core values of peer services.
Anyways, Dandelion said “yes” to my idea and together we created Peer Support Space, building peer-led recovery communities for communities that lack access to quality mental health services. An organization that has since provided no-cost services to over 8,000 individuals.
Your focus at the Peer Support Space is recovery and peer support. For our readers who are new to the mental health community, what do these terms mean?
Recovery is a very broad term that has been used, adopted, and shared by many that have overcome obstacles to mental wellness. Recovery is an ongoing journey and is unique to every individual. Peer supporters believe that there is no one way to find mental wellness and therefore, no two people will ever have the same recovery journey.
Peer services are services that are given by someone that shares a similar lived experience with the individual receiving services. The services are based on a mutual relationship where both parties are equals. Those receiving the services are always the driver of their own recovery, given the right to make their own choices and control their healing including how they understand, address their lived experience, mental health, and identities. A peer professional holds space for individuals as they navigate their own unique journeys. Not someone who will make “the rain go away”, but someone who will walk with you through that rain. In a world where mental health is so deeply stigmatized, it can be more approachable to reach out to someone who “has been there before.” It is already really hard to navigate our system when you are well, so having a community to help individuals navigate resources when you are unwell is an immense help. Research shows that those using peer services are not only more satisfied with their overall wellness but with the other services they use in tandem with peer services.
Those accessing traditional mental health services, including peer services, are usually affluent, cisgender, heterosexual, and white. Every community is unique and nobody can understand needs, culture, and nuances like members from the community itself. This makes services led for and by communities particularly important. Finally, my favorite part about peer services, the power of having a support system when you are struggling. The hardest part for me when I was in my lowest of lows was this immense feeling of being alone (a feeling so many with mental health obstacles feel as they struggle in silence and isolation), I never want anyone to feel that way. Peer Support Space is where the chosen family can heal together.
How has it been running your nonprofit? How have you two been able to manage the pandemic?
Candidly, running a nonprofit is tough. If I knew at the time of wanting to start what I know now, and if I didn’t have the support of being a part of Maven Leadership Collective- I don’t know if I would’ve done it. I am immensely passionate and confident about the impact of peer services and it seems like every time I feel discouraged, someone shares how they were impacted by Peer Support Space and it gives me the fuel to keep advocating. It’s a lot of pressure to have the responsibility of finding sustainable funding to keep services, and the jobs of individuals, fall on your shoulders. All while simultaneously overseeing direct services, program development, community building, and more- there are SO many moving pieces. It is difficult to exist within a system you hope to change. I’ve never been 100% confident about the correct path forward for our intended goals and I struggle a lot with imposter syndrome. I have been immensely moved though by how much support Dandelion (so grateful for them) and I have received. There is deep power in having a collective of passion, talents, and creativity behind us. We are so grateful for how many people have supported and aided our progress along the way.
With Dandelion and I both having a history in creating emergency mental health responses, we stepped up immediately the day stay-at-home orders were given in mid-March in Central Florida and began offering community gatherings twice a day at 12 PM and 6 PM each day, Monday-Saturday to combat the need for human connection during mandated social distancing. We thought, wrongly, that the pandemic would last only two weeks. Remember when we all thought this would only last two weeks? We are proud to have continued these digital resources today, over 750 peer-led community gatherings have been held by Peer Support Space during the pandemic. Anyone from anywhere is welcome to use these services as long as they are over 18. The pandemic has pushed us to no longer be local, we have welcomed individuals from over 10 states and 8 countries (yay silver linings!). We have digital community gatherings that are for the general community, specific populations, or that focus on certain wellness activities. Individuals use our daily digital gatherings as frequent or randomly as it meets their needs. There's no requirement to share, to have your video on, or to register in advance. We take turns sharing whatever we want and then get to say if we want feedback, advice, or just want to share. This is a great resource for individuals to build their support system as they navigate their mental health journeys as well as this unique time. To keep our new friends from around the world, our goal is to continue these digital services even when we move back to in-person services.
I am constantly learning about mental health and the community. What are some misconceptions about recovery and mental health our readers should know about?
While I have learned a lot about mental health through my personal and professional experiences, I think that everyone is an expert in themselves. There are so many ways to recover, and I hope that individuals find what works for them. Taking a pause sometimes is progress. Recovery is ongoing and not linear. I think that the only thing shameful about mental health is the stigma we place on it. I think one of the most impactful ways to destigmatize mental health is to stop using mental health disorders as adjectives and start having conversations about mental health instead.
Our current mental health system lacks cultural considerations, accessibility, and affordability; it focuses on crisis care and keeps leaving the same communities behind. When what exists isn’t working- we need to build new ways to educate, advocate for and strive for a world that normalizes and supports mental health struggles and where all individuals can be met with quality mental health services for their unique recovery journeys. It is not enough to say “it is okay to get help”- we need to make sure that help is available.
It isn’t true that you are not worthy of love until you love yourself, every single person is worthy of love even when they don’t feel it for themselves in the moment. It’s okay if the thing keeping you alive another day isn’t your will to live but is a pet, an upcoming coffee date with a friend, or a favorite TV episode coming out soon. When the idea of staying alive your whole life may feel overwhelming, it’s okay to take it day by day or moment by moment. Feeling hopeless is so, so valid but I have learned that feeling hopeless doesn’t mean there is no hope. You don’t have to feel such deep pain alone- reach out. Even if your support system may be small now, there are strangers that don’t know you but genuinely care about you- I care about you. Keep fighting. Life can suck, but you got this. You’ve survived 100% of what you’ve been through so far and I am so proud of you for that.
I’ve seen you speak about your own experiences of trauma and distress. What you have gone through is terrible. What was your journey like to not only thrive after the experiences but also bravely share your story publicly?
I share my story because when I was going through my darkest times, I was in a really unique position working in the mental health field, where I got to witness the journeys of so many. Knowing that I was not alone in struggling kept me fighting when I didn’t want to. Because our mental health struggles are something we are pressured to feel like we should hide, most people don’t have these examples and feel really alone. While I don’t have all the solutions -only what has helped me- I want people to feel the common humanity that we are not alone in struggling.
I think that sharing your story is an immensely personal decision and nobody should feel pressured to do so; it’s a decision that should be given immense thought. Nobody is entitled to know about your trauma. If, what, to who, and when you share is up to you. I share because I heal through helping. My dissociation helps me get through tough moments of sharing, I have learned with time that dissociation can suck but is also a superpower.
Post-traumatic stress is talked about a lot more than post-traumatic growth. I am so grateful to have been able to make something tangible and positive out of what I have gone through. In many ways, I have thrived. On the flip side, in many ways, I still struggle immensely. My personal recovery has been up and down. As I write this interview, I have been in a deep, dark down. The difference this time is I don’t feel as alone.
Some of your achievements are just wow like having your story read in Congress for Women’s History month! Looking back, what are some of your achievements and work that you are most proud of?
There was a moment (5 months into Peer Support Space) during our first annual fundraiser, a dark humor comedy show called “Stand Up for Suicide Prevention”, where I shared that we helped 800 individuals. I remember vividly standing on stage and pausing while everyone clapped. We’ve since helped over 8,000 individuals but I think it was in that moment on stage where “oh s***, We ARE doing this” really hit me. Some of my additional favorite accomplishments have been our ribbon-cutting ceremony on our first anniversary that opened our peer-led drop-in center, our response to the pandemic, the testimonies we have received from our participants, having Peer Support Space’s services shared when I am not around, a local gain of knowledge and respect for peer services, being able to create 12 unique recovery communities, expanding our direct services to also starting peer-led advocacy initiatives, and being reached out to for paid speaking engagements that I used to be the one reaching out to places to try to do for free.
What advice do you have for our readers to be a mental health ally?
We can all play a role in raising mental health awareness whether it is sharing our own experiences more openly, reaching out to friends and asking “how are you, really?”, spreading resources, volunteering, or donating to your favorite cause. When your friends are struggling, try not to jump to “fix” them, sometimes people just want to vent without being made to feel broken (if there was an easy fix and we could “just think positively” we would have done that by now). Ask individuals how THEY want to be supported instead of jumping to support them how YOU would want to be supported. You do not need to work in the mental health advocacy field to be a mental health advocate. Are you a parent? Give your kids the language to express feelings and role model your own struggles. Are you an employer? Give your employees mental health days the same as you do sick days and give realistic workloads along with a living wage. Are you in retail? Ask people how they are doing, give compliments, give empathy. You never know what kind of day somebody is having. One of the most moving moments in my life was when a stranger ahead of my car paid for my drive-thru meal. An act of kindness can make a world of a difference or even keep someone alive. Be kind, educate yourself, be a role model, get involved- it takes a community to heal a community.
So Yasmin, what is next for you and Peer Support Space?
Peer Support Space is currently fundraising to begin offering overnight peer respite services in our recently donated building. A peer respite is a voluntary, home-like, non-medical space where people can get away while being supported from trained peer professionals. Filling the gap between inpatient and outpatient services, our respite will be an opportunity to get away before reaching a point of crisis or a stopping point after crisis before going back home- focusing on preventative care and sustainable wellness. Individuals can stay overnight for up to 7 nights per month while remaining the drivers of their own recovery and creating their own personalized recovery plan.
I am hoping to demonstrate the effectiveness of peer services locally to have Peer Support Space serve as an example of what a diverse, peer-led organization can look like. Who knows? Maybe even have a few Peer Support Spaces one day.
As for me, I hope to continue working on my work-life balance, find new exciting nature spots, and discover the next best trash reality TV show that will distract me through the serious.