For as long as she can remember, Sarah Jean Flynn says she felt a little bit different, a little bit outside the circle that everyone else seemed to operate in. “I always felt like I identified with the underdog, identified with people who are pushed out of the center,” she says.
She’s been in some dark places, she says, but what pulled her out and gave her renewed meaning was getting support from peers. Today as director of the Peer-Run Warm Line run by the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, Flynn is charged with providing that same kind of support to more than 250 people a day who have been calling the line since the coronavirus pandemic took full hold in March.
She grew up in Maine and moved to Vancouver, Canada, after high school and recalls her late teens and early 20s as a pretty rough time, a period where she lost her sense of hope for the future. “I wasn’t seeing a lot of options,” she says. “I think I was resigned to low expectations of myself but also to the fact that I would never be very happy, would never get to feel things that normal people feel, never have that sense of not having a huge burden hanging over me.”
She threw herself into social justice work early, drawn to working with people who are outcasts — as she also felt herself to be. At 18, she was a volunteer, offering support to survival sex workers at the WISH Drop-in Center in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood. “We provided harm reduction, basic needs services, meals, toiletry,” she says. “I was drawn to connecting with the women and providing that immediate access — it really spoke to me.”
She was soon hired as a staff member and later worked at a youth residential facility serving foster youth from the First Nations, the term used for indigenous people in Canada. But at some point, she says, “my own challenges became too great and I had to take a break.” She moved to San Francisco in 2012, hoping to make a fresh start.
“I was a bit lost,” she remembers. “I didn’t know what I was looking for.” The she discovered the peer-support movement, connecting with the Icarus Project, a global network that started in San Francisco, and other groups. It was, she says, a turning point.
Sarah Jean Flynn at ‘Redefining Crazy: It’s the System, Not the People, ’ a Mental Health Association of San Francisco conference in November 2019.
“To have the experience of peer support was like a light shining through,” Flynn says. “Something connected for the first time. I was hearing other people talk about internal experiences I had never before heard articulated but immediately understood and could relate to.”
She was thrilled to have other people share the tools that they had used to “not just survive, but to live full, meaningful and happy lives and take care of each other,” she says. “It allowed me to have a sense of hope that I had lost.”
In 2014, she joined the Warm Line as a part-time counselor, handling calls from people reaching out for help. Inspired by the work, she advanced rapidly, becoming a full-time supervisor after one year and being promoted to manager and then director over the past two years. “It’s a pretty remarkable service,” she says. The impact I’ve seen it have on people’s lives — it’s almost overwhelming sometimes how important this connection is.”
The Warm Line functions like a preventive service, where people can get help before they need a crisis intervention, Flynn says. “They may be struggling a little bit, feel isolated, may need to brainstorm a little bit, to connect with someone who can empathize with their experience. We help them find their coping skills and connect to resources — recognizing that there is a huge gap in services for this in-between place.”
She is especially proud of the survey results they get from their callers. “The satisfaction is like 97 percent!” she says. “And 84 percent of consumers said the Warm Line decreased their likelihood of using emergency services and crisis services — like emergency departments or hospitals. It helps keep them from getting to that escalated place.”
As director, she’s now in charge of 51 staff members — 15 of them full-time, the rest part-time — and the number is growing as the Warm Line responds to the huge spike in demand caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In March, the line received 60 percent more calls than it did in February, but the staff was only able to answer about half of the extra calls.
“During that initial rush we returned a lot of voicemails,” she says. “We’ve since hired additional staff and are continuing to do so to increase our capacity.” Since mid-March, staff members have handled all calls from their own homes.
Mark Salazar, the Mental Health Association’s executive director, says the huge increase in call volume, “almost overnight, overwhelmed the peer counselors. Sarah Jean took swift action, finding new and creative ways to increase capacity and to support counselors feeling the pressure. Many of the counselors have let me know that she and the whole management team have done an exemplary job in making them feel heard and appreciated.”
For the past two months, more than a third of the calls have been directly related to Covid, Flynn says — “everything from anxiety about getting sick, to worries about friends or family, to financial and housing concerns.
People are also having PTSD flare-ups activated by the extreme stress in so many areas of their lives.”
She learned — more directly than ever — about the impact of stress when she was diagnosed with MS in 2016. “Through that experience I began to understand viscerally the way my mental and physical heath are interconnected — sometimes in not so subtle ways.” She knows that stress will worsen her physical symptoms and uses the tools she learned though the peer recovery model to navigate her way through the stressful times she — and the world — are now experiencing.
To Flynn, the fact that stress, anxiety and pain are now so clear and so universal offers the world an opportunity to reframe the way it views mental unwellness and mental health.
“We all have mental health just as we all have physical health,” she says. “With all that is happening in the world, some of us who have never experienced this before may be realizing, ‘I do feel anxious, I do feel down.’ It’s an important moment to normalize the idea that mental health is a normal part of human experience. We can take care and create resources in small ways. A person can be a resource.”