Derrick Yang, certified peer specialist for Wilder Community Mental Health and Wellness

Rethinking Recovery: Personal Mental Health Experience Provides Hope to Others


Finding the right kind of help for a serious mental illness can be daunting. Often, a person may need to work with several providers to find appropriate care. Case managers, psychologists, psychiatrists and other professionals may all be involved, along with separate treatment for chemical health, if needed.

“A lot of people don’t know how to navigate these systems,” says Derrick Yang, a new member of the team at Wilder Community Mental Health and Wellness. Derrick knows this first hand. As a certified peer specialist, he is a trained mental health provider who has personal experience with mental illness.

Derrick joined Wilder as part of a two-year pilot project to evaluate a more coordinated, patient-centered way to care for people who live with chemical and mental health challenges. His role is to help adults served in community mental health services build skills, identify strengths and connect to community resources — all with the lens of someone who has the lived experience of mental illness. 

“Having someone say, ‘Look, I’ve been there and I’m feeling a lot better,’ gives a person hope automatically,” Derrick says. “That sense of hope can be calming and can inspire them to believe that they can become better.”

Recovery Leads to Career as Peer Specialist

Derrick’s experience with mental illness began after his marriage ended. He wondered what he had done wrong and why he was unable to solve the problems in his relationship, entering a deep depression that went untreated for several years. He inflicted self-harm and attempted suicide. He experienced homelessness.

Eventually, Derrick received treatment and began recovering. While staying at a House of Charity housing program, he began volunteering to feed people experiencing homelessness and was drawn to a career in social work. He has worked as a peer specialist in several positions during the past decade, except for taking breaks to pursue his education. When Wilder created a peer specialist position, Derrick was excited for the opportunity to work with people with whom he has a shared Hmong heritage, along with those from other communities.

Mental Health Support and Influence with a Smile

At Wilder, Derrick works directly with people who are seeking mental health care and supports his colleagues. Vangcheng Nengchu, a case manager, says he and Derrick may discuss clients’ needs to find ways to help them understand their illness and overcome barriers to treatment. “He sees and understands some of the issues that we don’t fully understand in our clients’ illnesses,” Vangcheng says.

Dr. Pahoua Yang, Vice President of Wilder Community Mental Health and Wellness, says the experiences of other organizations show that employing peer specialists can often help shift the culture of the organization for the better. “It forces all of us to continually think about recovery in a different way,” she says. “It’s great for our staff and our clients to say, ‘Yes, you can live with a mental illness and be a successful professional.’”

For Derrick, the value of his work is in helping people smile. “I went through a period of time when I didn’t smile for three or four years,” he says. “It brings a warmth to my heart when I see someone smile.”


Having someone say, ‘Look, I’ve been there and I’m feeling a lot better,’ gives a person hope automatically.

Derrick Yang, Peer Specialist, Mental and Chemical Health Services