Voice of Idaho award winner Lisa Koller: “Today my life is to help people overcome the stigma”


May is national Mental Health Awareness month, and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is joining with Idaho Regional Behavioral Health Boards around the state to commend individuals who have worked hard to reduce the stigma around mental health and volunteered in their communities to inspire hope, recovery and resiliency.

The winner of IDHW’s first-annual Voice of Idaho award, Lisa Koller, is one of those individuals. Part of her journey to recovery and dedicating her life to helping others with mental illness was inspired by receiving help from an Idaho peer support specialist after she graduated from Mental Health Court in 2007. Lisa now works as a peer support specialist and recovery coach at The Center for HOPE recovery center in Idaho Falls.

Read more below about Idaho’s program of certified peer support specialists from Idaho Division of Behaviorial Health Administrator Ross Edmunds, and Lisa Koller’s personal story of her struggles with substance use disorder and mental illness as recounted in her own words:  

From Ross Edmunds, Idaho Division of Behavioral Health administrator:

Peer supRossEdmundsport services are provided by individuals who have similar life experiences to those they are serving.  According to the Substance Abuse/Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “People with mental and/or substance use disorders have a unique capacity to help each other based on a shared affiliation and a deep understanding of this experience.”  Through support, peers empower other people struggling with mental health or substance use disorder concerns, offering them strength and hope, and provide a path toward recovery.

Nationally, the outcomes for peer support services have proven to be highly effective.  Research shows that peer support streamlines the path to recovery and reduces health care costs. In addition, peers help to create a sense of community and belonging for all. Peer supports have been shown to be effective by providing role-modeling and lessons learned from personal experience.

Peer support services are critical in the Idaho behavioral health service system. Peers have experienced a mental illness and recovery, and are well-positioned to support others who are seeking recovery. Peers offer hope and encouragement by sharing their experiences and knowledge. They create opportunities for recovering individuals to live satisfying and meaningful lives.

Peer supports provide hope for individuals, families, and communities recovering from mental illness by offering:

  • Connections to a community of peers
  • Encouragement and understanding
  • Information on accessing resources
  • Support through recovery

The Division of Behavioral Health (DBH) believes in the benefits of peer support services for both mental health and substance use disorders. There are currently trained peers on staff at all regional offices, central office, and state hospitals. DBH also reimburses for peer support services through BPA Health. Optum also supports these services for mental health clients. Learn more here.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety.  The opposite of addiction is connection.” – Johann Hari.

From Lisa Koller, the 2017 recipient of the Voice of Idaho Award:

Idaho Voice Lisa KollerI was 5 years old when I was a victim of sexual abuse. I lived in Anchorage, Alaska. My father worked on the North Slope, one week on and one week off. My mom was a stay-at-home mother, married young and was very good at doing those things that one would expect of a good wife and good mom.

My world was turned upside down when I was abused by a next-door neighbor. The damage of the abuse was not confined to physical violation, but the mental anguish that accompanies violation of one’s innocence and childhood. This is called TRAUMA.

Exacerbating the damage was the secret imposed upon me by my perpetrator. I was told by him that if I were to tell my mom what happened, my mom would hate me. Being a master manipulator in his own right and I having the coping and reasoning skills of a typical small child, I was unable to discern what this man was doing. Under this fear, I could not tell anyone what had happened.

The abuse did not end after one event. The stalking and abuse did not end until he was arrested on a drug charge.

Out of pure survival instincts and shame, I made up my mind that what had happened was a secret that I must never reveal to anyone. This secret was one that was both highly damaging and life-consequential in ways that I never envisioned. As with secrets of this nature, I was to suffer mental anguish that affects me even today.

Compounding the shame of what happened was the onset of manic/depressive behavior. Coinciding with the emotional stresses of my life was my use and abuse of alcohol and drugs. As expected, my use of mind-altering substances, acting out sexually, and other self-destructive behaviors were all intended to still the pain of my past. These things I used to mitigate the pain had the unknowing effect of aggravating my negative sense of self-worth.

My life continued to spiral out of control, which manifested itself with either an extreme sense of isolation and aloneness or wanting to sleep my life away. Although I did not know it at the time, this is what is called DEPRESSION.

By this time, I had dropped out of high school and started working. This only accentuated the sense of being different. I started using cocaine and found that the cocaine provided me a feeling of being OK and emotionally pain-free, albeit temporarily. This was also probably the beginning of falling to the delusion that self-medication was a viable possibility for me.

My life continued to whirl out of control. I gave birth to three children while in the midst of my substance abuse. Signs of my having a bipolar disorder were probably highly evident and diagnosable, but I still had no idea of what was going on.

Living a high-risk lifestyle finally caught up with me. Along with several stays at substance abuse rehab centers were my incarceration in several jails and eventually, prison. My time in prison offered me the realization not just with myself but with others who had both a substance-abuse problem, but also mental health issues in the form of a bipolar disorder.

The silver lining of my prison cloud came in many forms. First, the down time in prison provided me an opportunity of self-introspection. I was able to apply some of my time to physical activities. Here, I met God. I was able to develop a kinship and belonging with other women that was both empowering and sustaining.

After prison I was reunited with my children. However, the stigma of being a convicted felon and recovering substance abuser in a small town turned out to be too much for me. Eventually, I relapsed and found myself in a new town, homeless, and destitute. Ending up in jail for a DUI resulted in more conditions for probation that I was unable to adhere to. The result was another trip to jail.

This trip to jail turned out to be different for me. Talking to myself out loud caused me to be housed in a segregated part of jail, and it was here that the diagnosis of my bipolar condition started to be treated with medication. Despite the medication lacking the exact efficacy for treatment of my illness, it was enough to offer me the mental clarity that I had for so long been missing.

Through additional diagnoses my condition improved slowly but in a meaningful way that I have been able to make positive and lasting changes to my life — spiritually, emotionally, physically, and professionally.

Today, my life is very different. My journey through understanding that there is a recovery in mental health has opened so many doors of opportunity. I can give back. Today my life is to help people overcome the stigma of their mental health diagnosis. This barrier prevented me from allowing myself to find help for my mental health out of fear that people would think of me as unpredictable, dangerous, damaged, and broken. I came to this conclusion because this is what I was taught.

I believe that the person comes person. We work through obstacles together to create the life that we feel is worth living. I feel that we are our own experts, and I know that we are not our diagnosis. I am allowed to feel sad, angry, and hurt, and they are not defined in symptoms anymore. It is my mission to help others to understand who they are and not by the limitations of their diagnosis.

My passion is to help people to understand this recovery in mental health, and the stigma that comes from the unknowing and the afraid.



One thought on “Voice of Idaho award winner Lisa Koller: “Today my life is to help people overcome the stigma”

  1. Pingback: Mental illness is normal in our society, and it’s also normal to have a life of recovery | DHW: Promoting and protecting the health and safety of Idahoans

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