Some time ago, I expanded Healing Student from being only a blog to also being a Peer Support practice. Peer Support Specialists are relatively new to the mental health field, so I want to help explain what we do. I think our work is absolutely vital to many people’s recovery, and after taking a break from mental health work for several years, I simply couldn’t sit out anymore and jumped back in wholeheartedly.
Out of Despair and into Hope.
First and foremost, a Peer Support Specialist is a symbol of hope. When I first discovered and truly accepted that I had a mental illness, I applied for SSI, (often mistakenly labeled “Disability”) and gave up on life. I felt that maybe I’d move out, but I’d always be a victim to my anger and instability. I even warned any new friends that I had a mental illness and if they didn’t want a difficult friendship they should abandon me now.
But then I came to a place called Recovery Academy. At Recovery Academy, I was able to take classes on Recovery and living well. I learned vital skills to living a healthy and fulfilling life even with mental illness. Yet, that wasn’t the most important thing. The most important part of Recovery Academy was that every single person on staff had a mental illness. Their existence was proof that my life wasn’t really over. I could indeed get a job and pay my own expenses and have my life back. I didn’t know the full path, but I knew it existed.
Doing the work
Then came the next step in Recovery. I learned the skills. I learned how to cope through the many things that I talk about here on my blog. I learned from Peer Support Specialists all the things they did to stay well. I moved on to become a Peer Support Specialist myself, first at Recovery Academy and then at Hope Network.
Hope Network taught me the rest of Peer Support. It’s not just about teaching coping skills. It’s about walking alongside someone and helping them through the system and through situations. I might teach someone how to use computers. I might show them how to ride the bus. I might help them manage money so they can live on their own or even drive a car.
Working with a doctor
At Hope Network, I learned to sit in appointments with psychiatrists. A psychiatrist can be scary to face. He doesn’t likely have a mental illness. He probably only knows from books what these drugs do. But he’s also an actual doctor so he’s a bit of an authority. A good psychiatrist will listen to his client, but not all are good. I learned to advocate for my clients. Hope Network always seemed to have good psychiatrists, but I was able to provide feedback and guide my peers in what it’s like to take meds so they can better interact with their doctor.
Working on a team
Peer Support Specialists work best as part of a team. We are not therapists; we are not doctors; we are not case managers. What we are is hope. We are someone to walk with you and help you get through from the perspective of having done it ourselves. We understand your situation, maybe not completely, but definitely more fully than someone without a mental illness.
Peer Supporters are the most valuable to those who are new to recovery and trying to get their bearings. I seek out clients who are trying to find a way to move forward but need someone to walk with them as they navigate. A lot of people in this stage of Recovery are not able to go to big groups, and need to be in a more private place such as their home or in a coffee shop. I built a business around meeting my peers where they’re at. Many people will benefit from Peer Support for several years, but I expect most will sort of “graduate” out of it. As Recovery moves forward and skills and wellness grows, a person just doesn’t need what I do as much. If I lose a client in that way, I’ll be delighted. But I’m not going anywhere until then. I don’t assume that I want to “work myself out of a job”. I just honestly hope for the best with the people I serve, and while some stay long term, others move on relatively soon.
This is what I do. I benefited so much from Peer Support that I simply couldn’t stand by and watch people miss out. I’m not the only peer supporter in the world, but we are in short supply and I just had to get involved. I hope this better explains peer support and why I do what I do.
Thanks for learning with me.