On Wednesday I attended a Lived Experience Workforce morning, for Peer Workers to talk about their concerns with their role and problem solve ways to improve things. The Peer Worker role is not new to health, but very new to Mental Health, and certainly new as a paid position. There are many complicating factors for peer workers in their jobs such as unclear job descriptions, divisions between clinical and non-clinical staff, difficulty accessing useful training and so on. One of the biggest difficulties in my opinion is the multiple roles and relationships that most peer workers have to juggle. When I walked in to the room yesterday, within a small bunch (say 30 – 40) of peer workers, there were people who are or once were:
- in a position of some kind of authority over me
- colleagues and co-workers
- friends I have known from outside mental health
- ‘consumers’ in situations where I was also a ‘consumer’
- ‘consumers’ in my programs (where I am staff)
Wrap your brain around that!
I see two essential tensions for the peer worker role:
- Either it changes the way the mental health system functions, to be more inclusive, less hierarchical, more client-centred etc. or the mental health system changes the peer worker role to better fit with the existing system, thereby reducing most or all of the effectiveness of the role.
- While it is absolutely appropriate for peer workers to campaign and advocate for better working conditions, appropriate supports etc. to always recall that as marginalised, disrespected and ignored as we are at times, the ‘consumers’ who we are supposed to represent are even more so and our primary job is to help change that. As a friend of mine said – peer workers may be on the bottom rung of the ladder, but consumers aren’t even on it. If we get a taste of the possibilities of respect, credibility, worth, and dignity, and pursue it for ourselves at the cost of pursuing it for consumers we will become merely one more cog in the machine that grinds over the bones of the little people. Our fight for decent treatment and conditions for ourselves is hand in hand with our fight for decent treatment and conditions for consumers.
It was an interesting kind of morning.