Peer Support: Why It’s So Important
By Guest Writer Diana Spore, PhD, MGS
At the outset, it is important to note that peer support should be viewed as a continuum – from informal connections to formal programming to formal agency structures. It can be as simple as two friends chatting and supporting each other. However, the peer support framework can be much more structured, such as the case with 12-step programs. Peer support programming can be under the umbrella of an agency, in which their administration and staff guide the program, with peers having some input into programming decisions. Peer support agencies can also be independent organizations, where peers drive and direct the services that take place.
Peer support programming and agencies have many benefits, as addressed here, but this is heavily contingent on all administration and staff ensuring safety, grounding programming in trust and confidentiality, and preventing toxic elements from creeping in. When reaching out for support and sharing very personal experiences, a risk exists that someone may betray trust or breach confidentiality. In well-designed, effective peer support programs and agencies, there are mechanisms in place to ensure safety, to voice concerns and complaints, and to take actions to ensure that rights are maintained and not violated in any way.
When done well and safely, peer support programming promotes overall well-being, opens the door to develop and strengthen meaningful relationships, and helps to maximize resilience and reduce stress. Peer support builds a bridge for moving toward and embracing recovery, for ensuring that contacts are trauma-informed, and for offering support so that risks of sadness and suicide are reduced markedly. We know that peer support works in healing from trauma, making social connections and avoiding isolation, and dealing with personal and larger-scale crises (such as the pandemic). It is meant to provide safe opportunities for lived experiences and stories to be shared. Optimally, peer support is a mutual process, one in which peers both give and receive, listen and are heard, trust and are trusted, respect and are respected.
As 2021 progresses, peer support should also be viewed as a mechanism for thriving, not just surviving. It is a way to embrace hope and a belief that the future will be promising, and that we are not alone in our journeys toward overall wellbeing.
Peers – those who have similar life challenges and experiences – can serve as natural supports. The criteria to participate in peer support programming can be as simple as being an adult who is facing a life challenge. Alternatively, groups of peers may coalesce based on other criteria, for example, disability status, physical or mental health diagnoses or trauma survivorship. There is value in having peer support activities and approaches designed for older adults, as will be addressed below.
Regardless of whether or not peer support programs are peer-directed, the voices of peers must be heard when designing creative and recovery-focused programming. Programming should be diverse, attempting to reach individuals who are alike in facing life challenges, whatever they may be, but different in terms of lived experiences, backgrounds, interests, needs and stages in their recovery process.
As part of a collaborative writing exercise at Pathways Peer Support, Ashland, Ohio, pairs of writers worked together to create tapestry poems expressing gratitude, taking turns writing each line. Benefits of peer support, peer support programming, and Pathways are reflected in the following example of one of these poems:
Feeling as if I am part of a cohesive community
Like a little sardine swimming within the school, through the vast sea of life.
Being heard by those who “get it,” and empathize,
Friends who know what it is like to swim against the current.
Being enveloped by support and compassion.
Being heard attentively, cared for.
Forging social connections and networking,
Finding friends and allies.
Being more than a part of an entity,
Important with something to give.
Being recognized as a unique individual with strengths
Identifying the progress and holding on to it.
Surrounded by caring peers, staff, and administration
Growing my support group for when the swimming gets hard.
All dedicated to helping promote recovery and self-empowerment
Helping me to fill my lifesaver box with what I need.
That’s what I find at Pathways Peer Support – thank you
For listening ears and comforting words.
(Diana Spore, Celia 11/14/2019)
Benefits include being heard by those who empathize and are compassionate, being helped to fill someone’s “lifesaver box” or “wellness box” of coping strategies to help them jump through whatever hurdles pass their way. The value of friendships and healthy relationships is clear: as peers act as both givers and receivers, strong support networks are developed.
Creative, Recovery-Focused Programming
Recovery-focused programming could include daily check-ins with other peers to maintain connections and provide support, to not only be listened to but to be heard. Additional options that might be of interest to all participants include relaxation, meditation, how to handle stress, and self-care. All of these opportunities help promote empowerment. Peer support programming is not meant to be an end point; it is meant to be a launching pad for charting the direction of your life and making decisions that are best for you.
Other good topics include focusing on the development of personal recovery action plans, adverse childhood experiences, trauma and trauma-informed care, a comprehensive look at health and creative expressions. Discussion also could take place about the role of peer support in meeting mental health needs as new “normals” emerge.
Community service projects are another good option, as they can be framed to reduce stigma directed toward those with psychiatric diagnoses or those with disabilities, regardless of age. These projects could focus on writing and sharing works and experiences. Optimally, projects would be designed to connect peers facing challenges with other community members. An open forum could be developed where people are more than their similarities and differences, and ideas could be shared and discussed. In addition to stigma, topics could include other significant issues facing communities and vulnerable individuals, such as social injustice, racism, ageism, the impact of experiences related to the pandemic, and myths about mental illness and violence.
Peer Support Programming and Older Adults with Disabilities
Older adults are at highest risk of contracting, becoming ill and dying from COVID-19, and responses to the pandemic have reflected ageist attitudes. However, a simultaneous phenomenon has emerged. Research has found that older adults are more resilient, are better able to handle the impact of coronavirus on their lives, and are strengthened by what they have learned and experienced across time.
Writing and storytelling is one form of peer support programming that could provide older adults an opportunity to reflect and share their thoughts. While older adults could connect with each other initially, their words could be shared with those who are younger than them, including children. Ultimately, by sharing their stories they could buoy up others.
When older adults engage in legacy writing and storytelling, they can focus on how they want to be remembered, sharing what they have learned across time. Likewise, they can think through the following questions that may resonate:
- How have I made a difference by being here?
- How have I found meaning and purpose in my life, and in what ways?
- What past experiences have made a difference in me being able to cope with and overcome challenges, like the pandemic?
- How can I use these experiences and my knowledge to reach younger people to help them retain hope, regardless of what happens?
Peer support programming could start with older adults and then evolve into multi-generational programming via letters, online video chats, in-person chats, and more.
Peer support programming can also provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities – including older adults – to find and share their voices in advocacy efforts and to network. By doing so, they can be empowered, empower others and make a difference. This type of programming could blend education, writing-related opportunities and presentation experiences.
As far as education and development of skills, peers would come to better understand what advocacy means and what types of actions are advocacy-oriented, even by taking small – but powerful – steps. For example, writers could learn about major issues facing the mental health system or disability service network. Learning how to frame letters to the editor of local newspapers or politicians is one form of advocacy. Peers interested in advocacy could learn how to write and speak persuasively in this way. By doing so, they can reveal adeptness at addressing popular views but challenging the status quo, and presenting outside-of-the-box ideas in efforts to advocate for change. Team-building training can also enhance collaborative efforts when engaging in these kinds of advocacy efforts.
Personal stories can also lead some people to develop public speaking skills by highlighting what is needed to improve services and to empower the disabled. By sharing in front of a small and supportive audience, peers can receive feedback, build their skills, and become powerful advocates. This could lead to speaking to larger groups, at virtual conferences, and at other forums where disabled individuals (including older adults), professionals, and advocates are among attendants.
In closing, peer support promotes recovery and overall well-being, helps to build social connections and avoid isolation, reduces stress and provides empowerment. Creative programming and community projects can be informative and provide meaning and purpose to participants. Helping older adults with disabilities develop their legacy writing and storytelling skills can empower them, promote emotional well-being and make a major difference in the lives of others, including younger adults and children. Advocacy efforts are empowering, empower others and lay the groundwork for reducing stigma. Let’s embrace peer support to promote well-being, to ensure that individuals maintain a sense of meaning and purpose, and to maximize resilience.
Diana Spore is an advocate for individuals facing mental health challenges and those who are living with dementia, a writer/editor, and a mental health consumer in recovery. Spore received her Master’s degree in Gerontological Studies from Miami University (Ohio), and earned a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies, with a concentration in aging, from Penn State. She completed postdoctoral training at Brown University. Spore’s areas of expertise include mental health and aging, mental health recovery and trauma-informed care, medication optimization, long-term care, caregiving, and psychotropic drug use and inappropriate drug use among older adults. She is a former Board member of the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Ashland County (Ohio; MHRB). She was Editor-of-Chief of TAPESTRY OF OUR LIVES, an anthology of works created by individuals in recovery, a project that was done under the auspices of the MHRB. Spore served as Project Lead for a “Writing for Recovery” initiative, MHRB, and engaged in all aspects of the project, which has resulted in sustained spin-off efforts. Diana Spore has expertise in creative writing, writing for recovery, journaling for caregivers, legacy writing, and advocacy writing.