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The Value of Peer Support

This is a source of confusion for people when they do not understand what exactly peer support is and how it benefits individuals working toward recovery in mental health. 

Logically, it may seem like a waste of time and money to work with a peer support specialist if you have supportive family/friends. But, there are distinct differences between a professional peer support specialist and calling up a pal asking for advice or a shoulder to cry on. This blog focuses on four main distinctions to clarify why working with a peer is different and at times more beneficial than relying on friends and family for support.

Training & Supervision

Peer support specialists engage in intense training (training depends on the state you reside in) and continued education on topics required and are standard in any therapeutic practice focusing on how to best support and protect clients. Just a few of the skills peer support specialists learn and continue to hone are boundaries, ethics, privacy, trauma-informed care, shared decision making, psychoeducation on mental illness, active listening, motivational interviewing, and many other valuable skillsets that can help support and benefit clients. 

Because peer support specialists are trained in these areas, sessions are approached professionally with an open mind on how to support the client wherever they are at on any given day. Because we do not have a history or casual relationship with the individual, we do not have individual bias or desire to guide or provide advice based on their past or an emotional connection. While friends/family may engage in conversation with a goal to ‘give advice or guidance’, that is not the role of the peer support specialist. Peer support specialists do not provide or give advice. A peer is specifically there to support the individual in their decision making and encourage them to draw from their own experience and wisdom in personal decisions. 

Along with in-depth training, supervision by a licensed professional in the mental health field is an important part of peer support specialists’ requirements toward credentialing in their state. Being guided by a trained/licensed therapist is important in navigating boundaries, honing skills in maintaining the integrity of the position and understanding the peer role while helping clients to understand the peer role as well. 

Continued education is required in maintaining the state credential including ethics training as well as trainings that support the core competencies all peer support specialists abide by. If you are working with a peer support specialist who is working toward or credentialed in their respective state, you can feel confident in their training, experience and passion about maintaining the ethics and fundamental competencies of their profession.

Peer Support

Boundaries

An important distinction between working with a peer support specialist vs getting a good gab session in with a friend is the understanding of and implementation of boundaries. Peer support specialists are professionals who focus on protecting the individual they are supporting as well as themselves. Peer support specialists’ training and experience emphasizes goals of being present to support the client where they are at, keeping the session focused on the client needs, and helping to support the client by empowering them to make their own choices serving their best interest.

Peer support specialists support with no bias, no agenda, and no expectations pertaining to their own needs. This may be a challenge when seeking support from friends/family who are aware of your history or who may bring judgment or opinions to the table about past decisions or even injecting their own bias in an effort to influence your decision. When this occurs, it may be hard to create and enforce boundaries with loved ones in order feel empowered to make personal decisions. When working with a peer support specialist, professional boundaries allow the client to feel less weight of forced decision making, judgement, or pressure to make decisions for others instead of their own needs. 

A crucial boundary in working with a peer support specialist is confidentiality. Peer support specialists abide by the same confidentiality rules and laws as therapeutic practices. Clients can feel assured and ensured the information they share with peer support specialists will be protected. There may be a greater degree of trust and security knowing the information you tell a peer is bound by the law to remain confidential. This is not the security you receive when sharing vulnerable information with family/friends. Also, clients do not always feel comfortable sharing mental health symptoms with family/friends if they feel embarrassed or ashamed. Working with a peer support specialist gives the individual the safe and confidential space to share information in mutuality without bias or judgment. 

Having boundaries with clients is also important in helping support individuals to learn and feel confident in making decisions on their own. Friends/family may practice enabling or negatively influencing individuals by not giving them space, support, or encouragement to be and feel empowered. Loved ones may also feel what is their best interest should be the individuals’ best interest. Peer support specialists help to instill feelings of individual confidence and trust, encouraging and empowering clients with the space to learn to trust their decisions without needing advice, permission, or reassurance.

Peer Support

Listening

Most people think they are good listeners until they get trained on how to listen. Typically before proper training, the natural conversation flow is to ‘listen only to respond’. Silence may feel like a ‘sign’ that something is wrong, so a wave of awkwardness may occur when there is a break in a conversation or a moment of silence. To avoid silent awkwardness, formulating sentences before it is even time to speak can feel like a proper social and comfort technique. Unfortunately, this creates a conversation void of authentic presence and listening for someone when they are relying on someone for validation or support. 

Listening is a critical component in practicing peer support with individuals. Peer support specialists are trained to give people space and time to formulate their thoughts and feelings so the time we spend with them is about what they need at that moment, without an agenda. 

Listening is one of the most important and vital foundations in what peers do. Because peer support specialists’ jobs are to meet clients where they are at and walk alongside them, it is crucial for peers to be focused, mindful, and actively showing up for the client’s needs. Client needs cannot always be deciphered unless we are completely aware and mindful in sessions. Listening helps peers stay focused on the goals of the client and how to use the trained skills to support and empower them to make choices best supporting their recovery journey.

In Conclusion

Family/Friend support is crucial and beneficial when living with mental health symptoms. But their support does not typically provide the training, boundaries, confidentiality, and listening skills needed to help individuals feel empowered and less stigmatized in their mental health. This is where the peer support specialist can make a vast difference and how it distinguishes the difference from a peer not being ‘just a friend’, but a trained professional.

Peer support is a beneficial supplementary support to therapeutic interventions for mental health and supported by empirical studies to be effective systemically in reducing stigma, shame, recidivism, hospitalization time and reducing overall costs to our health care system. The personal benefits of working with a peer are countless, including the promotion of hope, motivation, normalization and supporting individuals in understanding they have a voice in their recovery. If you are living with a mental health diagnosis and needing supplementary support, working with a peer support specialist may be a valuable and beneficial option for you. 

–Chrissie Hodges, CPFS

–Melissa Hunter, LPCFor more information about OCDPeers and our peer support groups, please go to www.ocdpeers.com or email us at ocdpeers@gmail.com