The Importance of Peer Support – Chris and Catherine
In this blog, Chris speaks to Catherine, a peer support worker who helped him with his mental health. He talks about why he thinks peer support is so important, and how it helped him personally.
Warning: This blog mentions eating disorders.
Throughout my recovery, I've found so much value in getting support from my peers when I've been on an inpatient ward. I've also found it valuable to keep in touch with them afterwards, and to make connections with people in mental health community groups, too.
There is increasing demand for professional help from people on long waiting lists. But something has to be said about how valuable peer support can be.
During one of my inpatient admissions, I was supported by an amazing peer support worker (PSW), Catherine Lucy. We've since caught up for an informal chat about the importance of peer support.
Chris Sims (CS): Hi Catherine, thanks for taking the time to discuss your experience of working in peer support. First off, I was wondering what sort of approach you've used when working as a peer support worker, and why did you use this approach?
Catherine Lucey (CL): Hi Chris, no problem. I’d say being present is most important – facilitating a space that feels safe. Actively listening and creating a space where people feel safe enough to express themselves authentically, while also emotionally supporting the person.
CS: Having a space where you feel listened is a big part of the work, I can imagine. What's been the best moment during your time as a PSW?
CL: Witnessing people express themselves and opening up because they feel safe.
CS: Why did you want to become a PSW?
CL: Through my own lived experience. When I was 15, I promised myself I didn’t want anyone else feeling the pain I did, at least not alone. Connection saves lives. Even if the person is struggling, we offer to walk alongside them.
CS: That shows a lot of courage to walk alongside someone. Did you find being a support worker challenging at times?
CL: For the most part it was healing for me. Peer support is a 2-way relationship. We heal together.
CS: I agree with that. It’s such deep work that can be healing for both parties. What other support could be effective for someone who's struggling with their mental health?
CL: Immediate support! When I was in crisis, I wanted to speak to someone who gets it. We should create more peer support communities so everyone feels they always have a place to go to.
CS: I’m sure creating a protective place would support many. What else did you find helpful in your personal recovery?
CL: Connecting with others that understand. Being honest when I’m struggling and not hiding away from what was happening.
CS: Connection needs both people to take the leap of faith, so it’s great you've been able to confront your struggles. If you could improve 1 thing about peer support services, what would it be and why?
CL: How peer support works within a team. A PSW should have a peer manager. A lot of the time, PSWs are brought into a clinical team with no other peer connections. This can isolate the PSW.
CS: Interesting, I hadn’t thought about that before. Something for services to seriously consider. What do you feel makes peer support so important and different from other types of support?
CL: Peer support is different because you’re speaking with someone who “gets it”. It’s important because you’re connecting with someone in active recovery. It shows you healing is possible.
CS: So true! I know that from our time together, my hope increased. Thank you for speaking with me today Catherine.
CL: No worries Chris! Happy to help, always continue reaching out. It's a strong attribute to have.
Reflecting on our conversation, many memories came up for me about feeling supported and lifted up by people who can relate. From my experience, peer support provides a mutual sense of hope and optimism.
Having just 1 person you can talk to about your struggles openly, and without any judgement, is truly valuable and priceless.
Peer support can come in all types of formats. While we need more PSWs in professional services, it's useful to know you can also get peer support from mental health charities and wellbeing services.
Whether it's someone who's trained and employed as a PSW, or simply someone you're friends with, the connection between 2 people can bring many positives. You can feel empowered from the emotional and practical support that comes with this type of connection.
I've found peer support incredibly helpful from PSWs. But I've also benefited from peer support from fellow patients on wards. I continue to connect with some of them to this day. It can be therapeutic to talk about struggles and experiences. And it can help to increase mental awareness.
I've also had practical peer support. Going out and challenging yourself with something new with a friend can bring a sense of confidence. For example, when I was struggling with an eating disorder, if I went out and challenged myself to a fear food with a fellow peer doing the same, this made the whole experience much easier and more supportive. It gave me a sense of encouragement to challenge the struggles and break unhelpful cycles.
I hope that this article can bring awareness to the importance of peer support. It can be truly healing for all involved. I would advocate for anyone to reach out and contact a friend you feel you can trust. It’s difficult to do this, but it can bring many positive rewards and a closer connection. I think that peer support, as well as professional help, can be a great combination.
Finally, I wish you all a fabulous ending to the winter period, and a spring in your step for the upcoming season.