Ten years ago, I was forwarded a job posting for a peer support role at our Self Help & Peer Support site in Cambridge. I had never heard of peer support as a career path, but I was intrigued with the idea of using my lived experience of mental health issues and recovery as a way of helping others.
I didn’t have access to formalized peer support when I was going through mental health system. Instead, I felt alone and isolated, which worsened my condition. I struggled to feel that people understood what I was going through. I am certain that having to access to peer support would have been helpful to me, and may have lessened some of the more difficult times in my journey.
Over the past ten years, I have witnessed peer support grow within the mental health and addictions field.
Over the past ten years, I have witnessed peer support grow within the mental health and addictions field. The lived experiences of people who have gone through illness and recovery — people who have experienced the system — have gone from being an underutilized resource to being seen as an essential part of a strong mental health and addictions service. This growth and validation of lived experience perspectives is inspiring.
Through this growth, one of the key learnings for the field of peer support has been that although many people value the idea of peer support, often little is known about what peer support looks like and how peer support helps people. With that in mind, here are five things to know about peer support:
1. What is peer support?
Peer support occurs when people share a similar life experience and provide each other with support and encouragement and share information related to their experience. It is not unique to mental health or addiction. A great example of this would be parenting. When we’re facing a challenge or looking for help as a parent, we often turn to other parents before we turn to experts. That’s peer support.
Most of us seek informal peer support (or the desire to connect with someone who has been through something similar) when dealing with challenging times. Within mental health and addictions, peer support is rooted in values of hope, empowerment, self-determination, mutuality, and a belief that everyone can recover from mental health or addiction issues.
2. How peer support happens:
It starts with an authentic connection that fosters hope for recovery. As peer supporters, we share that we have been through something similar and come through it. We walk beside people — not directing their path, but listening, validating their experiences, and sharing relevant parts of our own journey to wellness. Peer supporters share coping strategies, information and resources, and offer non-judgmental support.
3. How it’s different from other support:
While peer support complements clinical approaches, it is not clinical. Peer workers do not focus on diagnoses or give advice. Peer workers help people to discover and build on what’s working for them, even in the midst of illness. Like all mental health and addictions workers, peer supporters are committed to helping people move beyond illness.
4. How peer support helps people:
In addition to all of the above, services become more recovery-oriented and person-centred when they employ peer workers. Studies show that accessing peer support leads to improved coping and self-management skills, improved social networks, reduced isolation, reduced symptoms, reduced substance use, shorter and fewer hospitalizations, and a reduced need for intensive services.
5. The presence of peer support is growing and formalizing.
Mental health and addictions peer workers now have more access to national certification, and training opportunities to gain the necessary skills are increasing. More services are employing peer workers as a part of interdisciplinary care teams, and peer-led services continue to strengthen.
Ten years ago, I didn’t expect peer support would become my passion and area of expertise. Beyond witnessing how transformative peer support was for people accessing peer services, I have also found myself strengthened by this work. Because peer support is grounded in mutuality, I am required to be accountable to my recovery as I learn and travel alongside others on their journeys. This makes peer support a job that demands authenticity – and what a unique privilege it is!