By ROB NOVIT Senior writer When psychiatrist Dr. Greg Smith at the Aiken-Barnwell Mental Health Center sees a client through the new "HERO" program, there will be two experts in the room. Smith is one of them, and the client will be the other as an expert on himself. The two of them will share decision-making - a process that state advocates for mental health patients say is welcome and nothing short of radical. Mental Health Center Director John Young and Smith formally announced Tuesday the introduction of HERO - Helping Encourage Recovery Options. When a client sees Smith or another clinician, the client will have the opportunity to provide his own research into his illness, suitable medication and other needs. The two of them will then discuss it and decide what to do about treatment. "That is the future of mental health treatment," Smith said. "We'll see how it works, and in a year or so, we'll give you some data on how it's impacting people." Bonnie Pate is the director of S.C. SHARE, a consumer organization that represents the 90,000 people statewide with mental illness. Her mission is about empowerment and education, and she's delighted the Aiken-Barnwell center is taking that approach at the treatment level. "This is ahead of the curve," Pate said. "What it means is that (the clients) immediately find their voice and won't be shut down by the system. So many times people get diagnosed and end up in a hospital or group home. They don't know they have the choice not to do that. They can take more control." Clients referred into the program will get assistance from certified peer support specialists Wayne Moseley and Cynthia Smith. They will obtain information about a client's diagnosis, its impact on his life, interventions and lifestyle changes, medication interviews and "talk" therapy. The specialists will provide instruction in using a decision guide checklist. Moseley and Smith, no relation to Greg Smith, bring their own knowledge of traditional mental health services; both have been clients who accessed those services. "I'm a 35-year veteran of 'lock them up, dope them up, shut them up,'" said Cynthia Smith. "This is great. How long have we waited to have a voice in our own therapy? ... This is the best thing that could have happened to all of us." John Young said that all three mental health staffers were recognized last month as winners of "Heroes of the Fight Awards" - a program established by Eli Lilly and Company. Greg Smith was cited for his efforts to land a three-year study of "best practices" at the center - one of 22 sites chosen to work in collaboration with Dartmouth University. Moseley and Cynthia Smith were chosen for their peer support efforts. The HERO initiative drew enthusiastic support from Katherine Roberts, director of client services at the State Department of Mental Health. "I'd like to see this become a new standard of care for clients," she said, "where shared decision-making is not an exception but an expectation. Clients have to be involved in order to move forward." Contact Rob Novit at rnovit@aikenstandard.com.