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The role of the peer support worker

Mersey Care is supporting the introduction of peer support worker roles into our workforce and teams so that they help us transform and become more recovery focused.

What is Peer Support?

Peer support may be defined simply as “offering and receiving help, based on shared understanding, respect and mutual empowerment between people in similar situations”.  It occurs when people share common concerns and draw on their own experiences to offer emotional and practical support to help each other move forwards. (ImROC Briefing No 5: Peer Support Workers: Theory and Practice). 

There are eight core principles at the heart of a peer support relationship:

Mutuality: although everyone’s experience is different, peer workers do share some of the experiences of the people they work with.  They have an understanding of common mental health and addiction challenges, the meaning of being defined as a ‘patient’ or ‘service user’ and the confusion, loneliness, fear and hopelessness that can follow.

Reciprocity: peer relationships are about sharing and an exploration of different world views and the generation of solutions together.

Non directive: peer support is not about introducing another set of experts to offer prescriptions based on their experience, for example saying ‘you should try this because it worked for me’. Instead, they help people to recognise their own resources and seek their own solutions.

Recovery focused: peer support engages in recovery focused relationships by:

  • inspiring hope: they are in a position to say I know you can do it’and to help generate personal belief, energy and commitment with the person they are supporting
  • supporting people to take back control of their personal challenges and define their own destiny
  • facilitating access to opportunities that the person values, enabling them to participate in roles, relationships and activities in the communities of their choice.

 

Strengths based: peer support involves a relationship where the person providing support is not afraid of being with someone in their distress. But it is also about seeing within that distress the seeds of possibility and creating a fertile ground for those seeds to grow. It explores what a person has gained from their experience, seeks out their qualities and assets, identifies hidden achievements and celebrates what may seem like the smallest steps forward.

inclusive: being a ‘peer’ is not just about having experienced mental health challenges, it is also about understanding the meaning of such experiences within the communities of which the person is a part. This can be critical among those who feel marginalised and misunderstood by traditional services. Someone who knows the language, values and nuances of those communities obviously has a better understanding of the resources and the possibilities. This equips them to be more effective in helping others become a valued member of their community.

progressive: peer support is not a static friendship, but progressive mutual support in a shared journey of discovery. The peer is not just a ‘buddy’, but a travelling companion, with both travelers learning new skills, developing new resources and reframing challenges as opportunities for finding new solutions.

safe: supportive peer relationships involve the negotiation of what emotional safety means to both parties. This can be achieved by discovering what makes each other feel unsafe, sharing rules of confidentiality, demonstrating compassion, authenticity and a non-judgmental attitude and acknowledging that neither has all the answers.

There are four phases that have been proven to be important in the introduction of peer support worker roles into our workforce. We are currently at stage three, following the recruitment of people into post.

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Studies published so far point to benefits to the worker including:

 

  • Feel empowered in their own recovery journey
  • Greater confidence and self esteem
  • More positive sense of identity
  • Feel less self-stigmatisation
  • Have more skills
  • Have more money
  • Feel more valued
  • Seen as a positive and safe way to re-enter the job market and resume a key social role

Benefits to those being supported include:

  • Increased self-esteem and confidence
  • Improved problem solving skills
  • Increased sense of empowerment
  • Improved access to work and education
  • More friends, better relationships, more confidence in social settings
  • Greater feelings of being accepted and understood (and liked)
  • Reduced self stigmatisation
  • Greater hopefulness about their own potential
  • More positive feelings about the future

Benefits to the teams where they work include:

The introduction of peer workers is a powerful way of driving forward a recovery-focused approach within a team. Just as peer workers provide hope and inspiration for others experiencing mental health and addiction problems, they challenge negative attitudes of staff and provide an inspiration for all members of the team. Peer workers also facilitate a better understanding between the people providing the service and those using it (Repper & Watson, 2012 in ImROC Briefing 5).

As this team leader said:

“Peer workers have significantly changed the recovery focus of our team, they challenge the way we talk about people from a problem and diagnosis focus to one of strengths and possibilities” (Politt et al., 2012 in ImROC Briefing 5).

Benefits to the organisation

“The values and leadership of consumers are driving the shift from a system focused on symptom reduction and custodial care to self-directed recovery built on individual strengths...” (SAMSHA 2005).

Peer workers can also use their personal experience to influence organisational policies, procedures and behaviours. The fact that they have found ways of recovering a contributing role challenges some of the beliefs that underpin the system. For example, if an organisation is to employ peer workers, then human resources departments will need to reconsider general recruitment and selection policies and the use of Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. Similarly, the recruitment of peer workers may highlight the need for occupational health procedures to be strengthened in relation to staff with health related work problems arising from mental health issues. Thus, processes for supporting staff and improving well being may be improved not just for peers, but for the whole workforce (Perkins, Rinaldi & Hardisty, 2010 in ImROC Briefing 5).