Defining the Peer Support Worker role in the age of Covid-19

Published: 29 March 2021 to 31 December 2098

Establishing a brand new role can be tough, but doing so during a pandemic can be a real challenge. Peer Support Workers (PSW) are individuals with lived experience of mental health challenges themselves, and who want to use these experiences and empathy to support others receiving mental health services. Lived experience is something very powerful allowing us to connect with our service users on a deeper level and provide a different type of support for those in our services.

We spoke to Luke Scott and Frances Tonks about their new roles. They shared the initial challenges they faced and how they have come to value their experience during these uncertain times.

 

The Peer Support Worker role is there to bridge the gap between professionals and patients. We are here to support other people who are struggling with their mental health and make sure they can get back into the community with the support they require.

Having lived experience means that we are able to come in from a different angle. We don’t always have the qualifications and scientific knowledge of our clinical colleagues but we have an ability to empathise with and provide support to service users who are going through a tough time, because we’ve been there ourselves in the past.

We are able to uniquely reflect on our own journeys, and decipher what might’ve helped us if we had access to a Peer Support Worker during those times. Our understanding of their experiences encourages service users to open up; they tend to trust you that bit more and let you in, knowing that you are a friendly and informal form of care.

Our role is unique but we also believe it’s extremely valuable. It allows professional teams to get that additional support and also relieves some of the pressure on our Community Mental Health Teams as we support service users in their transition from services to living out in the community. It’s our goal to promote healthy living and inspire our clients to do things for themselves, and to fill their time with positive activity.

 

“To look back at the last twenty years of my life and to know that it hasn’t all been in vain, and that I can use my experience for something positive, is really rewarding for me. It’s not only about me helping the service users, because they help me too on my recovery journey. The support works both ways.” – Frances

Crafting a new role is going to be a challenge in any industry, but one thing that was a particular challenge in the beginning was the effects of Covid-19. Lockdown meant that a lot of activities we would usually rely on were not possible and that certain methods of care remain unavailable to us. We cannot simply take a client for a coffee, for example as we are limited to essential face to face appointments only, and some parts of our jobs are done over Microsoft Teams as that’s the only possibility at present.

Nonetheless, clients have been exceptionally positive and understanding. Joining during the second wave definitely made this process easier, clients knew why the limitations were there and they support our decisions in keeping them safe and well. Most of them have told us that it’s just nice to speak to someone who understands, and that it’s refreshing that it doesn’t feel like we’re just doing this because it’s our job, but we’re doing it because we can empathise with their experience.  

The teams that we worked in have also been very understanding and helped us find our place in the service. With Luke working out in the community, it was important that he established his role specifically in a way that supported the work already being done by the Community Mental Health Teams. For Frances working in Forensics, on the other hand, it was a slightly different situation as the Forensic team was also fairly new and still finding their feet in terms of their delivery of service. It was about working through any initial teething problems and finding her place in the team.

 

“The team were exceptionally supportive, I felt welcome from day one. While it was challenging to establish my role and how best I could help, I now feel like I’m at a place where the importance of my work is not only visible, but acknowledged.” – Frances

 

It’s been fascinating to go from patient to professional within the same NHS Trust from which we received our support. We’ve learned more about how the services work. For example, as a service user, it’s easy to get frustrated with things like waiting times, but as a member of staff we now have a rounded understanding of what happens behind the scenes, and how unbelievably hard the teams are working to ensure each individual gets the support they require. You see it from a whole different perspective and that has been really eye-opening.

We’ve certainly learned to embrace everyone’s unique problems. When you are experiencing a mental health problem, you often become quite self-absorbed and you don’t always feel like anyone understands. However, working at the Trust has opened our eyes to how everyone’s brains work differently and that, while everyone’s experiences are unique, there’s power in coming together and supporting one another through those times.

If you’re interested in the Peer Support Worker role, we couldn’t speak highly enough of how rewarding it is. It’s more than just sharing your lived experience; you get to join a community, raise awareness of mental health issues and ultimately, you get to make a difference to people’s lives.

“People always say to have goals to live your dream but I already am. I would do this job for free if I didn’t need to pay my bills. It’s hands down the most rewarding thing I have ever done.” – Luke

 

It’s a fantastic opportunity to take what people believe to be their most negative characteristics and turn them into a positive thing that helps people. That’s a unique and amazing thing to do.

Recovery and your mental health journey may be something that is ongoing, and it’s important to know that, when you make that shift from patient to professional, you need to have some separation between the two. Your lived experience is a highly valuable asset and will make you a strong team member, but patients are not always understanding of your vulnerabilities and only you can decide for yourself if you’re in a place where you can handle this kind of responsibility.

Overall, we are changing the way mental health services treat patients, and we believe that can only be a positive thing. We are excited to know that the Trust is continuing to recruit for Peer Support Workers, because that is recognition enough to know that our work is valued and important.

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