13th February 2018
People who have experienced mental health issues and are in recovery themselves have been offering support to service users across the country in a new approach by the HSE Mental Health Division.
These Peer Support Workers were recruited in February 2017 and now 28 are members of community mental health multi-disciplinary teams in various services across five Community Healthcare Organisations (CHOs).
It is a recognised approach that can bring benefits to service users through improved social functioning, enhanced treatment planning and incorporation of key recovery principles into their experience of services. Peer Supporter Workers can also help get the best from mental health services through appropriate sharing of their own recovery journey and perhaps, most importantly, engendering hope.
Paul Clabby, a Peer Support Worker with the Loughrea Community Mental Health Team, said, for him, peer support can be summed up in one word – friendship.
“This is an invaluable resource that many of us can instantly access. If we’re lucky enough, we may even have a close friend that we can turn to in times of crisis, someone we can relate to, someone who will hear our story,” he said.
“But what if we don’t have automatic access to this resource? What if we have isolated ourselves from family and friends? What if we feel that nobody wants to listen, that nobody will understand our story? This is often the case for many people struggling with mental health issues.”
He highlighted the fact that disconnection is often a common thread running through the stories of people with mental health difficulties, leading to a sense of personal isolation.
“Many times when access to friendly help is unavailable, there is only one resource left, professional help through the mental health services. While beneficial in its own way, it is still a limited form of help. Peer support can be that vital ‘connecting link’ between professional help and self-help - a form of mutual help.
“Peer Support Workers, people with personal experience of mental illness, can be a guiding light on the road to recovery for someone who is struggling to find direction. Peer Support is based on many of the same principles that are the foundations many lasting friendships; it’s about shared common experiences, shared mutual respect, shared learning, shared understanding and shared hope.
“Peer support offers an environment where a person can feel that they are being listened to as a normal person, not just a service-user, or ‘mental patient’. We can take this type of support for granted, because so many of us have easy access to friendly help in our daily lives. It’s only when it’s absent in a person’s life that we begin to see it for what it really is – an essential requirement for human living,” explained Paul.
Kelley Lee, a Peer Support Worker in the South Tipperary Rehab Team, admitted that she had some nerves when taking up her new role.
“Starting a new job and being one of the 30 new peer support workers to be employed by the HSE was exciting and scary being that we are a new discipline introduced to the service.
Over the last number of months we have worked hard to establish our roles and finding our feet in the service,” she said.
“Being a Peer Support Worker, we offer a different perspective to the teams as we have the lived experience of mental health difficulties and using the services.”
Kelley said the fact that she didn’t have a conventional look helped her build relationships.
“My first couple of days on the job I was given some funny looks, as I had bright blue and pink coloured hair and I was asked if I was a nurse. I replied that it didn’t look like it, pointing at my hair and they started to laugh. They became visibly more relaxed and we had a laugh about it. They’ve told me that I don’t look like staff and I think that’s a good thing, its breaking down that ‘us and them’ barrier again.
“Some of the people that we support just need us to carry that little bit of hope and encouragement for them, we’re the role models of recovery. We’re able to take that little bit of extra time with them and do the small things, whether it’s supporting them to get on bus, accompany them to an appointment, introduce them to social activities and groups in the community, help them to cook a meal or go the shop, go for a walk in town and that they have someone they can call. We’re able to work with them at their pace. Even if it’s just creating a safe place for them to express themselves.
“It’s the small things that you lose the ability and confidence to do when you become unwell. That’s why we can relate to that as we have been there and done that.
Further information on Peer Support: