Reprinted from "Recovery" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 9 (1), pp. 27-28
I live with severe and persistent mental illness. I also live with a seizure disorder. And, I’ve been employed as a peer support worker (PSW) for almost 10 years.
When I meet another person who lives with a seizure disorder, there is immediately some connection due to our mutual understanding of what each other is going through. Our actual diagnosis and experiences about seizures are always different, but there are many commonalities that only
other people living with seizures can understand.
Interacting with peers helps you realize you are not the only one with challenges and that you can help one another by sharing your life experiences. I often use my life experience with seizures to explain aspects of mental illness and peer support, since both seizures and mental illness have had stigma attached.
Peer support helps individuals share commonalities that can exist for people living with mental illness. And peer support can be a part of recovery from mental illness. When I say “recovery,” I’m talking about a life process an individual engages in, leading toward personal life satisfaction.
I have progressed a ways down my path of recovery, and now have tools to help me live with my mental illness. It is this life experience with recovery (along with the six-month training program) that qualifies me to work as a peer supporter.
As a PSW, I work one to one with people on a variety of goals. Some goals include reducing isolation, making friends, attending groups, taking transit and adjusting to a new neighbourhood. My peer and I meet for a two-hour weekly session and usually try to complete the goal in six months. Sometimes, the goal takes longer, or my peer may end up motivated to attempt another goal based on the success of the first one. All our meetings take place out in the community except for periodic review sessions where the peer and I meet with rehab/clinical staff to discuss how things are going.
Peers are referred to me either by their case manager and/or my supervisor, who is the occupational therapist at the community mental health team.
As a PSW, when I share my personal experience of living with mental illness with a peer, I am selective in what I share. I only share aspects of my experience if it will be of value for the peer. I don’t share parts of my past that will not help my peer on their path toward recovery. For example: I live in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, but whether I’d share that fact depends on my peer. It helps some peers recognize I have experience around the addictions issues the neighbourhood is well known for. Other peers, who have shared that they don’t trust people who live in that area because they’re all drug addicts, wouldn’t be able to trust me.
Listening is one of the most important parts of peer support—I always listen to what my peer wishes to share. Careful listening helps me get ideas on how to support my peer. Many peers have shared that it was my listening skills that helped them trust me.
Each peer has a unique journey due to their different challenges, goals and strengths. My job is to be peer-centred. This means being an active listener and supporting them to discover for themselves their own path of recovery. It’s not for me—or anyone other than my peer—to prescribe their path of recovery. That is not being peer-centred.
Frequently, I help peers adjust either to a new neighbourhood or city. Many newcomers to Vancouver have no idea where things may be and how to get around. I listen to my peers needs and interests. Then I can show my peer resources and transit routes that will help them feel more comfortable in their new neighbourhood. There isn’t much point in showing where the coffee shops are if they don’t drink coffee.
Another aspect of peer support is providing hope for peers who have little or no hope. I try to build hope via a strengths-based approach. Identifying a peer’s strengths—which they may not even realize they have—can be used as the foundation for overcoming challenges or problems. For example, one ‘problem’ I have is that I’m a shy person. A strength I feel I have is that I like to help others. So, using my strength of wanting to help others, I have overcome my shyness—partly anyways! Helping peers to see themselves in a good light has helped me see myself in a good light.
What’s important about using a strengths-based approach is being honest. As a PSW I never make up strengths to make a peer client feel better. And I don’t pretend that there aren’t challenges that my peer wants to overcome.
A common part of providing hope is that, as a PSW, I model living a life that peers want to emulate—they may want similar outcomes to mine. Peers come to realize they too, are capable of journeying down their own path of recovery, and outcomes similar to mine are possible. It feels amazing when a peer accepts that they have a future and feels hopeful—in part due to seeing themselves in what I have done on my path of recovery.
The best part of my job is reflecting with my peer on where on the peer was when we started and comparing that to where the peer is now. Over the decade I have worked as a PSW, I have witnessed some amazing things. For example, one peer shifted from expressing that he had no interest whatsoever in meeting with me, to agreeing to meet with me for a few sessions, to cheerfully meeting weekly. With limited support from me, my peer accomplished many goals, including moving to a new neighbourhood and getting a volunteer position. He is now able to accomplish much independently—but thankfully, we schedule a yearly review meeting where my peer shares recent progress in his life.
It feels great to get feedback from mental health professionals and family/supporters regarding the support I provided my peer. It is especially great to have my peer express their gratitude. I have been told on many occasions, by different peers expressing their gratitude: “I had given up. You believed in me before I did.” But reflecting upon the progress my peer has made (with some support by myself and others) helps me feel that we all made a difference.
And making a difference is an important aspect of my own path of recovery. Through supporting my peers, I often end up being reminded of, or even developing a different perspective of, my own past. Also, I have to put my own struggles aside for two hours so I can focus on supporting my peer.