The Following Is From An Interview With Robyn Priest
Being supported by others who have shared your struggles and know what it’s like is the foundation of peer support. For those living in rural and agricultural communities, the Stigma Free Society has partnered with Robyn Priest LIVE YOUR TRUTH to offer peer support worker training funded by Pacific Blue Cross. With this training, individuals in rural communities can start their own support groups.
Robyn Priest kindly spoke to us about the benefits and values of peer support work.
What is mental health peer support and how did you become involved in this world?
For me mental health peer support is about people who have experienced mental health challenges supporting others who are dealing with mental health challenges. It gives a sense of being “normal”, not someone weird; that I am not alone, not the only person experiencing this. I was diagnosed over 25 years ago and there was a job advertised at something called the Wellington Mental Health Consumers Union In New Zealand. I was like, that sounds pretty cool, everyone has their own mental health challenges. It started there and I just kept getting more and more involved. It made sense to me that people who were dealing with their own stuff could chat about it and be real with others. It’s been a great ride, and I have worked in 10 different countries talking about peer support.
Can you talk about what makes peer support unique compared to something like therapy or other mental health resources?
It’s about camaraderie, having someone to talk to who “gets it”. Peer support comes without an agenda. I am NOT trying to get people to do anything. It’s about supporting people to explore what they want in life. I can share my own experiences and how I got through difficult times, something that’s not always encouraged or allowed in other mental health professions. It’s not my job to fix, save or solve anyone’s issues. Peer supporters are there for the person they are supporting, while sometimes the rest of a team may be trying to get the person to take their meds or achieve a certain recovery goal that has been decided for the person. Peer supporters support the individual to explore what they want.
Peer support lacks hierarchies and expert/ patient roles. What is the value of being supported by a peer who has gone through a similar experience, compared to the support received by a clinician?
Often, we are told we don’t have the education, but we do, it’s just a different education. Our practicum may have been being homeless, or in a psych ward, surviving while using substances, etc. Those are real life experiences and skills that we can share. Someone once described peer support as describing the colour blue to someone who had sight and lost it, versus describing the colour blue to someone who never had sight (the clinician). I know that many people working in the mental health field have their own experiences, but it’s about what their job description says they are required to do. As I said earlier, peer support helps people feel less alone, like someone gets them. That they have an ally. If we can support the system to allow peer support to stay true to the Mental Health Commission of Canada peer support values and allow other clinicians to do their job – it’s a win-win for the individual being supported.
Peer support can benefit both the one being supported and the peer support worker. Can you talk more about this?
Peer support, for me, is about mutuality. I am not better than, or more “recovered” than anyone else. I am working on myself everyday and sometimes when we both share experiences, I learn other coping skills/strategies from that person. It’s not about me as a peer supporter requesting support, or sharing all my issues, it’s just in conversation that things transpire. I am there to support that person but we both learn and grow from any discussion.
Can you talk about some of the values within peer support and why they are relevant to mental wellness?
The values of peer support are about being human as far as I am concerned. The MHCC values of peer support are:
- Hope and Recovery
- Empathetic and Equal Relationships
- Dignity, respect, and social inclusion
- Integrity, authenticity, and trust
- Health and wellness
- Lifelong learning and personal growth
For me the values are about being a “real” person at all times, doing what I say I will do, supporting people to choose what they want in life, not thinking I know what others should do, treating everyone with respect, thinking about people as “whole” people not just about their mental health (my mental health is only a part of me, not all of me) and always being willing to learn and grow. I want that for all humanity.
What does strengths-based support mean to you?
We are so often told what we can’t do, or shouldn’t do because it’s too stressful, but strengths-based support says: look at how strong you are, how resilient, how resourceful. Someone may be labelled manipulative, but if I come from a strengths-based approach, that person is a great negotiator (getting their needs met), creative and strategic in how they go about things. Those are great skills to have. Imagine being told you are manipulative versus being told you have great negotiation skills, are creative and strategic. Then I ask, how can you use those amazing skills in life to have the life you want? It’s about supporting people to see themselves not as a victim, or at the mercy of their mental health challenge, but that they can go after what they want in life. We can all go after things in life, we don’t always get what we want but that’s life for everyone – not just people with mental health challenges. I want to support people to dream big and at least try to go after what they want, to not be shut down by people saying it’s unrealistic or not appropriate. Nobody can determine that but the person themselves.
For more information and to register for peer support training, please go HERE or email email@example.com. The next training session will be happening in June.
Thanks to a generous grant from Pacific Blue Cross BC, this training is free of cost, with a $50 deposit required to secure your spot. Your deposit will be refunded once you attend the session, unless you choose to donate the $50 to the Stigma-Free Society. Donations are always welcome! Deposits for those who do not participate cannot be refunded.
Spots fill up quickly, so register as soon as possible. Don’t miss this amazing opportunity to build skills for cultivating empathy and understanding in your local community