There are lots of examples of peer support where a degree of shared knowledge and experience is seen.
‘The most help I got was from the other people in the ward who had gone through similar experiences… The nurses, they’re great but you find, or I find… the best people that helped me were other people that had been through psychosis, had some little pointers, were grounded, that’s the thing.’ (Scottish Recovery Network, 2007)
The quote describes one person’s experience of being on a hospital ward and the support they got from other people staying on the ward. It’s important to note that they weren’t suggesting the help they got from staff on the ward wasn’t helpful – it was just a bit different.
The idea that people who have had similar mental health experiences can offer each other support is not new. The nature of mental health issues means it can be harder for people who have not been there to really have the same degree of understanding and empathy as someone who has experienced similar issues. This was described well in a 2008 report from Highland Users Group:
‘The knowledge that we have been through similar experiences can create an immediate bond and sense of trust that we cannot find elsewhere. We find that we can be more open to each other in ways that we may not with professionals or other people who haven’t experienced mental illness.
We often feel that when we are in the company of fellow users we will be free of stigma, and that the judgemental attitudes we sometimes experience from others will be absent.
We find that we don’t have to explain ourselves as an understanding of what we have been through already exists. We often mentioned the cliché, ‘We’ve been there, done that, got the T- shirt’ which, to most of us, explains it all.’ (Highland Users Group, 2008)
This gives us an early indication of the additional benefit which can be gained through shared experience. Other examples of mental health peer support include self-help groups where group members have had shared mental health experiences. Think, for example, of an online forum where group members share and support each other with voice hearing experiences or with Wellness Recovery Action Planning (WRAP), where group learning is shared by a facilitator who has their own WRAP plan and recovery experience. The following quote comes from a member of a self-help group in the Highlands and gives some ideas of what the shared, lived experiences of group members bring:
“We look at life before we became ill, at life now and how we see the future. We show what we can do and have empathy with each other because in different ways we have all been through it. We know what it’s like to shut the door and never go out or what it’s like to take panic attacks.
Now we have the discussion group; it is so good, everyone contributes and gets it out their system. We look out for each other and take people to see the doctor if they need a companion.
We all have fun, we have a great time, we laugh together and we face challenges together.” (Highland Users Group, 2008)
Other examples of peer support can be found in advocacy and befriending settings where ‘lived experience’ of mental health issues is seen as an asset.
What marks out the peer support worker role from these other examples is the extent to which the role is formalised. This means that the role has been specifically developed to make use of shared experiences of mental health problems and recovery. The peer support worker role also introduces what Shery Mead (a leading writer and trainer) describes as ‘intentionality’. In other words, the intention in peer support worker roles is that the sharing of experiences helps develop strong relationships that are based on mutuality, empathy and shared understanding. This should benefit both peers in the relationship.