Calling All Proud and Passionate Peers

A peer support group is a judgment-free and stigma-free zone.

Posted Aug 01, 2020

I haven’t written much about the role of peers in my recovery because I never was exposed to a formal peer support specialist or a peer support group. When I was diagnosed with BPD in 1990, the use of peer specialists as a part of a mental health recovery team was not even a concept.

According to PaPSC, or The Pennsylvania Peer Support Coalition, the first certified peer specialist initiative was launched in 2004 by Pennsylvania’s Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. 

In mental health, a peer typically refers to someone who shares the experience of living with a psychiatric illness (or an addiction). Many peers are well into their recovery and have had additional training and certification that is demonstrative of their expansive skills and knowledge.

© by sirtravelalot | Shutterstock
Source: © by sirtravelalot | Shutterstock

One definition of peer support is the “process of giving and receiving encouragement and assistance to achieve long-term recovery.” Peer supporters “offer emotional support, share knowledge, teach skills, provide practical assistance, and connect people with resources, opportunities, communities of support, and other people” (Mead, 2003; Solomon, 2004). 

Starting in August, I’m going to be doing some peer coaching and facilitating peer groups on the platform, Hey Peers. According to Hey Peers, this is why the platform works.“We believe that seeking help should be simple, comfortable, safe, and familiar. Hey Peers is our way of making that belief a reality. It is a video chat app that allows people to join support discussions with others who are on a similar life journey. The conversations and meetings are provided or led by qualified peers. Every user can Browse, Join or Schedule a peer support connection anytime, anywhere, from any device."

This is not psychotherapy. My goal as a coach and a facilitator is to facilitate with honesty, empathy, and compassion while remaining non-judgmental and supportive.

Peer groups are not places where people with mental illnesses come to express themselves and then stagnate. The groups are living, growing, moving fields of individuals who are engaged in the process of recovery.  Everyone engages at their own pace.  

I left my first social work position in 2005 because I was mired in a severe depressive episode. In 18 months, I was psychiatrically hospitalized six times for depression and suicidal ideation. I had ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and numerous medication trials. I had to count on SSD (social security disability) and Medicaid for my income and medical insurance.

As I reached towards the top of the abyss, my then psychiatrist, Dr. L., thought I should start working again. She told me she didn’t necessarily mean social work, she said a part-time job in the mall would be fine.

I came up with every excuse.

I’m not ready.

I’m still too depressed.

I can’t stick to a schedule.

I can’t work on SSD.  I’ll lose my benefits.

I’ll screw it up and get fired.

As Dr. L. calmly countered each of my arguments, I sat arms folded and continued to shake my head no. Finally, she told me she doesn’t work with patients who are intent on staying stagnant in their recovery. She said if I insisted on remaining on SSD, she would be happy to refer me to a therapist who works within a framework called Good Psychiatric Management for BPD.

I felt a stab of fear and froze. I was terrified of losing her.

I went to the mall, walked around and filled out applications at women’s clothing stores. One hired me and after five months of folding sweaters and greeting customers at the door, I was bored out of my mind.

I think Dr. L. was counting on that. She's a wise woman. I then started back part-time in a social work position and after nine months was hired full-time.  

I don’t know if I ever would have felt ready if she didn’t push me – or give me that ultimatum. Much of the time, others have more faith in us, then we do in ourselves. 

I think that is true in peer support as well. The encouragement of our fellow peers can be a powerful motivator and we have the ability to inspire confidence in each other. We often see in each other what we’re not able to visualize in ourselves.

© by Halfpoint | Shutterstock
Source: © by Halfpoint | Shutterstock

Giving feedback is a skill and, like any skill, it improves with practice. When I first started attending writing workshops, I was expected to contribute something to the discussion about the work of the other participants, just as they commented on my work. I was terrified I’d say something utterly idiotic and everyone at the table would laugh.

I learned from listening and I learned to trust my instincts and sometimes I gave great feedback and sometimes the other writers disagreed with me. As I became more confident, I grew to appreciate points of view that were different from mine.

What brought us all together is that we all had a passion for writing.

Just like peers all have lived experience with mental illness. That experience gives us grit, makes us more resilient, expands our patience, and increases our ability to accept differences.

Yes, I’m a clinician, but I was a person with lived experience with mental illness way before I went back to graduate school. I’ll never forget the experience of being on the long-term unit which specialized in treating people with BPD and feeling safe and understood for the first time in my life. I was finally among people like me, albeit, (mostly) women who had been self-destructive, cutting, and suicidal, but no one looked at the scars on my arms and recoiled in horror.

Peer groups are where we can find our voice. Just as each writer has his or her own voice, a group, in the way we give feedback, is a place where we are able to find our unique voice.

©  by Africa Studio | Shutterstock
Source: © by Africa Studio | Shutterstock

The confidence we acquire, whether by writing or by helping our peers, is exponential. Our self-assurance bursts through the boundaries of the group into the rest of our lives and the lives of everyone we touch. Literally.

And once we do, nothing can hold us back.