Celebrating the power of peer work
Tonight I would like to share some moving and fascinating accounts I have been privileged to hear about peer work and discuss the role and value of this unique style of work in assisting people who are recovering from mental ill-health. To quote from one peer worker I met: 'We have the tools through our experience to support others who are suffering.' In the mental health arena, a peer worker is a person who has lived experience of mental illness. Peer workers draw on knowledge and skills from their own experiences to help and support others who are on a similar journey. So an essential element of a peer worker's job description is that they have experienced mental illness. But other aspects of their jobs and the skills they will need will vary, depending on the role that they are carrying out.
Over recent weeks I met with peer workers from a range of organisations in South Australia, including Mind Australia, Neami, Centacare and the Mental Illness Fellowship of South Australia. I also met with Sally Haskard and Shandy Arlidge who are conducting an 18-month project for the Mental Health Coalition of South Australia to support the development and growth of the lived experience workforce in the non-government mental health sector. Each of these meetings increased my understanding of the power and the potential of peer work and I came to understand what a variety of roles they may perform. I heard about one-on-one personalised support for someone embarking on a recovery journey, as is offered by the PHaMs program—the Personal Helpers and Mentors program—and peer workers running support groups offering education, information and inspiration. I also heard about peer workers accompanying people to employment agencies and job interviews, offering immediate support in the emergency departments of hospitals, and working in clinical settings to help educate and inform their colleagues and to provide a bridge between consumer and clinician.
Why is peer work so powerful? Because clearly it is. Without exception, every person I met loved their work and lit up as they discussed their potential to help others. For some it is as simple as the fact that they 'get' the experience of mental illness. This is so important for the people that they work with. Through their own experience they can convey acceptance, understanding and empathy. I commonly heard that peer work dramatically undercuts stigma and changes the usual power imbalance experienced by people living with mental illness, from the helpless—or the helped—and the helper to one person walking alongside another, offering support and acceptance from a point of common understanding. Anne expressed to me that this as being able to relate to people on the same level. She described an unspoken 'knowing'—a conversation that asks, 'You get it?' with the answer being, 'Yes,' and no more needs to be said. Those of us who have not experienced the challenges or stigma associated with mental illness cannot imagine what a relief it must be to be working with someone who just 'gets it'. Robyn told me that peer work can yield amazing results because the client knows that you know what it is like and they also know you have their back.
A vital aspect of peer work is the modelling and the hope it conveys when a person who has experienced significant mental illness is able to work, function and effectively assist others. Mark, a peer worker at Neami, told me that his work shows that 'living with a mental illness and living a full life is possible'. Another worker told me they can encourage their clients to think beyond their current circumstances, especially if they are just starting out on their recovery. He said, 'They can dare to dream. There's more to life than what they're experiencing.' I heard how it is very important for peer workers to be there for people right at the start of their recovery journey and to help them take their first steps. They know the fundamental question for many people will be: 'Am I ever going to get better?' Through their work, some peer workers told me they can also show that failure can be okay, that there are various options or pathways to get where a person wants to go—that they, by doing what they are doing, can model: 'I don't feel very comfortable with this today, but it's okay. It won't kill me.'
In my meetings I was curious about the idea of disclosure. It became clear to me that it is one of the most powerful tools available to a peer worker: the sharing of personal experience. But important questions arise: when to do it; how to know if it is right; and what boundaries need to be in place?
Without exception, I was impressed by the emotional intelligence and wisdom of the peer workers I met with, who have to constantly negotiate this balancing process. Nina has an ethic of sharing personal information when it is 'purposeful'. Another worker told me, 'If someone asks you a question, it's about being honest with them.' Another told me, 'It's about them, and you're guided by them. Some will welcome your experiences, but it's not about imposing your experience onto someone else.' Julie has a clear practice of using her lived experience in an intentional way, clear that it must only be when it will assist the other person.
As well as benefiting their clients, it is clear that peer work is also valuable for the workers. For some, it gives some meaning to their pervious and ongoing challenging experiences, and can transform pain into good. Damian told me that sharing a dark past with others helps to shed a light on those areas. I was very moved when he told me, 'I can use that to find out what helps to make a person's sun shine.' There is also mounting and compelling evidence to show the value of peer work as a pathway for the workers into growth, education and further employment. Being paid for a job well done offers tangible and practical affirmation that painful life experiences can have a value, contributing to a person's capacity to offer something worthwhile.
Across Australia and internationally, the role of peer work is coming to be recognised, and best practices are being developed, with protocols around the integration of peer workers into workplaces—training at TAFE, supervision, qualifications, conditions and appropriate ways of making sure that the value of peer workers' experiences is understood and embraced by workplaces. I believe that it is absolutely crucial that clinicians and other mental-health practitioners embrace the amazing opportunities that peer work offers. I also believe that it must be supported by governments that are willing to assist with appropriate training and qualification, and then funded to ensure that peer workers are able to work their magic in the many areas where they can contribute a real value in terms of the mental-health sector—particularly the non-government sector but also in areas like emergency departments of hospitals and as bridges between clinicians and clients.
I am very grateful to the many peer workers who were willing to meet with me and share with me their insights, their stories and their wisdom. All of them had travelled a challenging path, with experiences of mental ill-health ranging from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder through to anxiety, depression, eating disorders or other conditions that had rocked their wellbeing and their sense of the world. But, without exception, I could see that through their employment they were able to make a positive of the attributes that they all had in common—emotional intelligence, compassion and wisdom—and could contribute to the wellbeing of others. So I say thank you to those people for their willingness to contribute and give back to those experiencing mental ill-health and for sharing their insights and very personal experiences with me. It is really important that they understand that the work that they do—and the work that peer workers do throughout Australia—is valuable and absolutely makes a difference.