In the mental health context, a peer support worker (also known as a peer mentor) is somebody who uses their lived experience to inform the ways in which they help others going through similar challenges.
For this reason, it is commonly considered important that the peer support worker has made some sense of their own mental health challenges and ideally has either ‘recovered’ by their own definition, or at least has ‘some distance’ from their experience.
The peer support worker is required to draw on the insight gained from their experience and also have enough capacity to hold another person’s distress without being overwhelmed. In order to be able to do this, there need to be support mechanisms and self-care strategies in place. It is essential that they can sustain a level of stability to manage the pressures of employment in this role. Some required qualities include:
- An ability to reflect and process emotions/thoughts
- Professional commitment and conduct
- Excellent listening abilities
- Good communication skills
- Validating, encouraging and friendly manner
- Awareness of inclusivity, ethical practice and recovery approaches
- Willingness to work within the broader mental health system (including community services)
When matching peers up with people, it is best if the peer has a similar experience to the person they are supporting, although it is not always a key requirement. In simple terms, peer support workers show empathy and deep understanding of the difficulties associated with mental illness and they are able to quickly develop rapport owing to the shared experience. They work alongside treating teams and employment agencies, or within the community to provide unique support that often makes all the difference to a client’s recovery.
As with any work in the mental health service sector, peer support workers require regular de-brief and access to additional support should they experience vicarious trauma related to the work that they do. Some differences exist when managing a team of peer workers, given that they are expected to disclose more personal information than other professionals would in their day to day work. For this reason, managers of peer support workers should be trained to ensure the peers are not inadvertently discriminated against nor do they feel isolated or aimless.
Best practice occurs when peer support workers are fully integrated into a workplace as a valuable member of the multi-disciplinary team and are given opportunities to utilise their lived experience expertise. If this is not available/possible, a well-matched peer support worker with a similar workplace background is a great alternative. They are often able to add an extra dimension of hope for the client and also normalise an experience that is commonly stigmatised by wider society, the workplace (or the person themselves).
Peer support work can be carried out by people who have a family member who is/was unwell (a 'carer'), as well as people who have been unwell themselves. Both types of peer provide extremely valuable knowledge to people who are navigating experiences that can be highly frightening, confusing, frustrating and distressing.
For more information, contact Kathy McPherson at email@example.com.
Kathy is a well respected and knowledgeable peer support worker, trainer and mentor, who has established several peer support programs for people affected by eating disorders. Find out more about Kathy from her profile on LinkedIn.
- Mind the Gap: Working with a Mental Health Condition
- Should you Speak Out about Mental Illness in the Workplace?
- Stories From the Edge, Part 1: Over the Edge
- Life Matters: Disclosing Depression at Work
- About peer support: Centre for Excellence in Peer Support
- Peer support: rationale and evidence base - MHPOD
- Peer support groups in Western Australia - Connect Groups
If you have other resources you would recommend, leave a comment below.