One of the best examples of what we believe constitutes a caring partnership is our Peer Support team. Each of the Advocates peer specialists uses personal stories and experiences to actively and directly support individuals working through mental health and addiction challenges, and plays a unique and vital role in recovery distinct from but supplemental to health professionals.
We talked to seven members of Advocates’ Peer Support team about the importance of partnership in recovery and what it’s meant to them over the years.
Why are peer support programs necessary for the people supported by Advocates to thrive?
Anne Marie: We have the experience of being a "client" and it adds two things to the relationship: We care deeply because we know the pain intensely, intimately, and so we intensely seek to give the humanity the system never gave us. The second aspect is that we have a story of recovery to offer. In one way or another, we climbed out of that hell, so we turn and support the other person find their way out.
Paul: It’s important that the people we support know they’re not alone with what they’re going through. I often find myself being the only person in the room in agreement with what the person wants to do.
Irena: We can continue to share ways in which we’re continuing to make progress on things we’re working through. We’re not resting on our laurels. We’re both working in that direction. People feel more relaxed, people will open up and trust us.
Greg: Too often the “system” has let many people down which sometimes leads to mistrust of the “system.” Our partnering with people we support is that of a mutual partnership without “power over.” We support people on an equal playing field.
How do your own experiences, challenges, and accomplishments factor into your work?
Heidi: I’d been told for many years that my life would consist of hospitals, group homes, medication, that I would never work again. I really like to share with people that you can build the life that you want for yourself. We often don’t get that message. One of my biggest accomplishments has been recognizing my strengths and that I could be an important part of the community and give back.
Michelle: One of the big differences in my life was the few people that really believed in me – they were relentless about that. They were not willing to give up on me no matter what. I don’t know where I would be right now if I didn’t have that, people who valued me, really liked me, empathized with me, connected with me.
Alex: Sometimes people go to the hospital for whichever reason, and I personally have experienced going to the hospital myself and I have had experiences with very little understanding in regard to communication with the hospital staff and this was a very isolating experience. Having had this experience of isolation in the hospital because of lack of communication, I can understand what it is like to go through this.
Greg: Peer Specialists use “snippets” (parts of our recovery story) to inspire hope and demonstrate that despite difficult challenges, people can move forward in their recovery and lead very fulfilling lives. I think this increases the connection through open, transparent, honest, communication, showing we are all human with our own challenges.
What are the most important qualities or attributes in an effective peer specialist?
Paul: Being able to be present and listen to people. To truly be with them in the moment, wherever they’re at. They may bring to mind things I’ve been through in the past, things that were difficult in the past, and I have to just be okay with that.
We also work toward system change; we’re sometimes in a room where we have to speak up and make relationships with people that we don’t see eye to eye with.
Anne Marie: Compassion, communication skills, and strength.
Irena: Not having a knee jerk reaction if someone says they’re suicidal, etc. With peer specialists, there’s no assumption that a person is violent or dangerous because they’re having a hard time, this is different from clinical perspective. We need to explore all possibilities and minimal use of force.
Can you describe one of your favorite success stories? Why do you think it worked?
Heidi: I worked with someone who learned to advocate for himself. His clinician wanted him to move into a group home. He put his foot down, said no, and why. To me that was huge -- it showed me he had found his voice. It was a great representation of what it can mean to have someone by your side when you don’t have a voice, until you do find your voice.
Irena: Success is anytime when we laugh at a joke together and it takes us to a completely different space. Success is an ongoing relationship, or providing peer support in my own language to someone in the community feeling isolated, culturally.
I worked for months on a creative project with a woman who really wanted to make a gift for someone. We really had to support each other, and stay focused. We wouldn’t have been able to do it alone.
Greg: During DMT (Decision Making Team) meetings I was supporting a person who was eager to take big steps in his recovery. Prior to the meeting I listened closely to his ambitions, dreams, and desires for a fulfilling recovery and return to a life he really wanted. I advocated for staff to give some leeway and used my own lived experience as an example. After negotiations, he was very happy to get most of what he wanted and today he is very much closer to living life on his terms. This was successful because of the trust and bond we built.
Describe what’s involved in a partnership between peer specialists and the people they support – what are the roles and expectations?
Michelle: I share my experiences and let them know I’ve lived in the system, been diagnosed with mental illness. I don’t get too specific at that point but go into what I can do. We explain mutuality and what that means in terms of a peer support connection. I talk about transparency: everything we talk about, anything that happens, I’m going to explain.
Paul: One thing that can happen after the relationship develops is that we find ourselves doing things that can benefit both of us. The walks I take this man on every week are the most exercise I’ve had in months. It’s good for both of us. A woman I used to work with in the past, I told her I used to do tai chi, and she wanted to try it, so now when I see her, she asks if I want to do it – it gives me a chance to practice.
Anne Marie: There must be complete honesty on our side of the relationship. It has to be genuine. People can tell when you're being fake with them. It could take awhile to establish that sort of two-way honesty. If you make a mistake and it hurts the other person, it must be acknowledged and repaired again. The thing that is most crucial is the consistent, honest relationship. Then you need to bring resources to your partner and offer them a way to hope.
Irena: Even when you no longer work with a person, you have a connection that you still continue. You don’t necessarily stop right there.