Peer Work is drawing from your own experiences to support someone else. It’s an idea that’s been around for many years in health, for example cancer survivors running groups to support people newly diagnosed. It’s fairly recently a role that’s becoming respected in Mental Health. At the moment many people are employed to support carers, perhaps called Carer Consultants, who have or are themselves carers and can support, educate and relate to other carers in a personal way. This is one kind of peer work. Consumer Consultants are people who draw upon their personal experience of living with or having had a mental illness themselves to support, encourage and educate other people. When the term Peer Work is used in mental health, this is usually the kind they are referring to. There are many names for this ‘peer work’ role such as Consumer Educators, Community Workers, Mental Health Educators, Peer Facilitators etc., and it’s becoming more common for mental health teams in hospitals and community centres to have Peer Workers on staff. Peer Workers are also often in voluntary roles such as visiting people in psychiatric hospitals.
What do you need to do to be a Peer Worker? You do need to be reasonably well yourself, whether living well with your condition, or recovered from an episode. Anytime you draw upon your experiences to help another person, you are doing peer work. Many peer workers find that this isn’t so much a job description as a part of how they live their lives. Even if you are very unwell and in hospital, if you can listen, encourage, give useful information to, or in some way make things easier for another patient, you are doing peer work, in my opinion.
If you’d like to become a peer worker, there is some training you can do, through the Peer Work Project here in SA. It will also help if you spent time with other people with mental illnesses through a community centre or online perhaps. Often we know a great deal about our own condition, but very little about other mental illnesses. Broadening your knowledge can help you relate to and support more people. I’d suggest you attend or volunteer at a local club, centre, or hospital that supports people with mental illness.
What does a Peer Worker do exactly? Well, that depends, the roles can vary tremendously. Some people work one on one and support people living with mental illness. Some people give talks, sharing their story with different audiences – perhaps people who have little experience of mental illness and who may benefit from putting a human face on labels and conditions. Other people run groups, perhaps around a skill, activity, or particular experience (eg. anxiety). Some people do admin and get peer related resources up and running such as online websites.
Being a good peer worker involves a passion for this work, a willingness to be open about your experiences, excellent listening skills, lots of patience, and good support. Good boundaries, a degree of stability, and the ability to handle having a foot in both worlds (part ‘consumer’, part ‘staff’) will help a lot. Peer Workers, like everyone else in this field, are vulnerable to burn out so you really do need to take good care of yourself, have good support and pay attention to your early warning signs. Having said that, for many of us the opportunity to convert painful experiences into something that helps people and to feel useful is a crucial part of our recovery. If it suits you, you can find a good balance, and you have good support, then Peer Work can be one of the things that supports your mental health.