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  • Carley Crain

Redefining Peer Support

Updated: Jan 9

It’s time to redefine and reintroduce Peer Support. Peer Support from its very start has been about breaking down stigma and giving power and autonomy to consumers of mental health services and supports. It has been an extraordinary tool for people for decades now, allowing them to navigate the mental health system in a different and more meaningful way, but outside of the community who has chosen to embrace it, Peer Support has developed its own stigma and operated under a shroud of confusion, fear and trepidation. At Connections we want to break the stigma that has attached itself to Peer Support and offer clarity around what Peer Support is, isn’t and can be.

I speak with a lot of people about Peer Support. Those inside of my small social circle know quite well what Peer Support is as I have spoken about it endlessly now since I was first introduced to it in 2017. Those that I speak with outside of that circle have either never heard of Peer Support (or have heard very little) or have only heard of it as something related to substance use recovery, an area for many that unfortunately carries its own stigma that then attaches to Peer Support, or severe mental illness; again this sadly often carries its own stigma that then attaches to Peer Support as well. Outside of these areas Peer Support is not really discussed and unfortunately, because of these areas and these stigmas, it is often dismissed or looked upon as a burden.

Peer Support is a highly effective modality of support for both those living with significant mental health issues as well as those living with substance use issues, while it is unfortunate that both of those areas carry their own stigma that is a different topic for a different time. Peer Support is also so much more than this. Peer Support is a tool of self empowerment, it is a method of learning effective communication and self advocacy, and an avenue for those who have struggled to develop healthy social relationships to do so in a manner that allows them to practice boundary setting, as well as giving and receiving honest feedback. Peer Support is not just about significant mental health issues and substance use recovery and it is time that we begin to acknowledge this and get the word out.

I have a somewhat unique background with Peer Support as I came by it casually as I was already pretty well along in my own recovery, but as those of us in any type of recovery know it is always a work in progress and Peer Support for me was another powerful tool that empowered me to keep going. I had already begun working as a Health and Wellbeing Coach when I was introduced to Peer Support by a woman I was taking an herbalism course with in Portland, ME. She had the most beautiful way of speaking about it, she was working for a peer agency by the name of Amistad, and she helped me understand that a major part of it was giving people the support they need to understand that they are not alone in their experiences.

I reflected on that for some time. During my own mental health experience that was one of the things I struggled with the most, the idea that what I was going through was a unique experience, that I was alone in this and that no one who was supporting me actually understood what I was going through. The idea that there could have been someone who was a part of my team who had a shared mental health experience and was willing to talk about it with me was an idea that sounded incredibly healthy and gave me the desire to pursue this avenue with the work I was already doing.

I was quite fortunate to quickly develop a network in the peer community in Portland and I moved quickly through the certification process. I was struck early on by how easily the language of Peer Support lined up with the language of Coaching, both modalities are about giving power and autonomy to the people you are working with and supporting them to make their own choices, set their own goals and take their own steps towards those goals and the lives they want and deserve. Peer Support began to heavily influence my coaching and coaching began to influence my Peer Support in a beautiful display of synergy. What I saw with the clients (in the coaching world we use this term, in the Peer Support world we do not) I was working with and using Peer Support with was that they not only reached their goals faster and more effectively and sustainably, but they were also more able to set and define their goals because they had been given a language to do so and a method that allowed them to be heard in a way that they had not been before. 

One of my most striking encounters with Peer Support came with an individual that I supported through a 12 month transitional living program I was managing at the time. This was an individual who had been diagnosed with autism in their mid 20s, struggled their entire life with social relationships and felt deep isolation and depression as a result of it. This individual committed to working closely with me, I explained to them what Peer Support was, how I wanted to use it and what I thought it could do for them. They were skeptical at first but agreed to go along for the ride.

We learned nonviolent communication together as a language and this is how we would speak to each other, it allowed this person to develop a different, far less combative and defensive manner of speaking with their peers and their family than they ever had before. It empowered them, they had entered the program frustrated and depressed and convinced this was going to be just another failed avenue for them but once they connected with Peer Support, they were able to see that there was a path forward for them.

We shared our experiences with each other, had honest conversations about our mutual social struggles and deficits, as well as our triumphs. We built an actual relationship together and used it to heal and to thrive. Peer Support allowed this individual to not only stick it out through the duration of the program but to thrive inside and outside of the program. They built social relationships with their peers, they began to pursue romantic interests, they dove back into their areas of interest, and they began to advocate for the future that they wanted. I still keep in touch with this individual to this day and they continue to thrive, and they are grateful for their introduction to and experience with Peer Support.

I had a number of experiences like this during my time managing that program where Peer Support became a method of learning social skills and building relationships that were honest and based in mutuality. It is an aspect of Peer Support that doesn't get spoken about enough, if at all. The idea of Peer Support is using honest relationships to support each other to move towards our goals, but Peer Support also teaches us how to develop those honest relationships and gives us the courage and the skills to pursue them. That is a large part of our focus at Connections.

We live in an increasingly isolated world. Post pandemic more people are working remotely, going to school remotely, having fewer and fewer moments of connection with other human beings. There is a fear that builds in these situations, a fear of being misunderstood or rejected, of not knowing how to navigate an entirely new world, of not knowing how to make a basic social connection. Peer Support is a tool for confronting this fear, for learning the skills and the language you need to develop healthy relationships based in mutuality and that thrive with healthy boundaries; it will teach you how to set those boundaries too. This is one of the many areas of our focus at Connections Peer Support Center, if this is something you have been struggling with or would like some support with, we would love to meet you.

Fred Poisson

Executive Director

Connections Peer Support

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