In Support of Peer Support…

An invited article on the meaning of peer support to the peer support professional in mental health and wellness:

While I haven’t yet been “working” in our field, I have been working hard (as a volunteer) since earning New York Certified Peer Specialist (NYCPS) certification in May 2016. My purpose in obtaining certification and my focus since, has been around development of programming in mental health awareness, education and advocacy.

I didn’t know there was such an entity as a peer specialist when I was diagnosed or in the early years of my recovery.  There was a time, I thought I’d never be well enough to be of use to anyone in an actual job again, and before my illness, I had worked since I was 12 years old! I worked long and hard for many years, in many roles. I learned a lot. Then my illness took over and I learned even more.

It was several years in to my recovery journey when I found the NYCPS coursework and application online, I thought, here is a way to somehow contribute in the world again. Since certification, I’ve worked with organizations in the early development stages of peer support programming; I’ve developed an awareness/education/advocacy website in support of those who seek resources and information as a peer or family member. It includes lots of resources, basic support information and blog articles written to encourage peers and families in self-advocacy and wellness. I’ve guest blogged for Academy of Peer Services. I’ve guest-edited a recent online newsletter for international Association of Peer Supporters (iNAPS). I’ve also been working on a presentation for Western NY Girl Scouts, to help them earn the Mental Health Awareness patch, available through the International Bipolar Foundation.

I share all of this, not to toot my horn, but to sort of explain that I am not doing peer support work “in the field”, i.e., in someone’s home, or traveling around a specific region for one organization’s peer programming. Not that I don’t want to. But, I do recognize my own level of recovery. I recognize what I am capable of. I recognize what I am not yet capable of. That’s important in peer work. I believe, if we have the passion to use our lemons to batch up some lemonade, then we should do so, even if we don’t yet, or ever, fit everyone’s specific mold. I believe that has to be okay. There’s more than enough work to be done in this effort. We need all of us.

In sharing these thoughts though, I’m making the point of this article. You never know in what way you will be of support to a peer, or a fellow peer supporter. You may not recognize that you are being that voice an individual needs at a certain time. You may find, after talking with a peer, that you are thinking more clearly on a certain topic, or that some small part of a conversation the two of you had, has put a light on a missing piece to resolve your current puzzlement. Each interaction is an opportunity.

As Peer Specialists, we maintain that fine line between peer and support; the clients we serve are not intended as personal relationships, but recovery relationships in support of the clients’ goals. Yet, still in recovery ourselves, we may often find ourselves very much in need of our own outlet to vent to, or pose a hypothetical to, or doubt ourselves in front of, or question the process with, or insert your topic of the moment here: _______________.

You get my point. The value in peer support is not only in what we offer for our clients, but what we informally offer each other. By continued, open discussion, forum dialog, conference attendance for those able to do so; webinar participation, group projects, and so forth. We are all recovering, every day. No matter how much good we want to put out into this world, we are wise to recognize where we are in our own recovery, be understanding of the timing in the recovery journey of others, and be respectful and mutually supportive of everyone’s contribution. The fact that we are able to support one another, while we work to support others toward self-advocacy and recovery, makes us stronger in our work. We inherently find ourselves exemplars of the peer support model, both as supported and supporter; talking the talk while walking the walk.

“Nothing about me, without me!”

I’m still here.

The call to action, “nothing about us, with out us!” was coined decades ago, by a group of mental health consumer/survivors who, through sheer determination, formalized the mental health peer movement and truly enabled the meaningful voice it has today.

No longer is the science behind mental illness denied. No longer are we at the mercy of what experimental treatments might be the latest en vogue. No longer do people deny that mental health and physical health are all part of one person, one wellness.

Well, most people don’t deny it; especially, understanding that 1 in 5 people, across cultures, across regions, across continents – will live with a mental health condition during their lifetime. (Currently, 58 million people in the United States!)

Everyone knows someone affected by mental illness. The peer movement, and now the peer support movement, are here to stay; and still here, to say that there is recovery, there is help, there is hope. We are better selves when we help ourselves, and when we help each other.

Also true, however, as with any journey, that any recovery can experience setbacks; no different than recovery from any physical ailment might. Its true for everyone. It’s also often the case that physical ailment can contribute to fluctuations in emotional wellbeing. Or perhaps, some sort of unexpected life detour puts up a roadblock. Let’s be honest. Any number of things can result in an emotional setback, whether you live with a mental health condition or not. Enough to sort of end up feeling in limbo, almost unable to take a next step, even if we know what the step needs to be.

Having experienced a similar crisis of confidence very recently myself; doubting my ability, doubting what help I’m actually being; I found it was the informal support of another peer supporter, that helped me recognize, out loud, what was behind my feeling of, well, “stuck”. More importantly, it brought me to realize that I am still contributing to the greater good, even during setbacks, because that’s what my goal is. That’s who I really am and what I feel called to do. It’s taken me decades to get to know me. I’m not going to lose sight of myself again, even though setbacks will come.  The journey is here for everybody. I’m no less a part of it by my condition, by my setbacks, or by my sometimes less than stellar confidence level. I am still here. I am on my journey, with all of its ebbs and flows and failures and successes, just like everyone else.

I will continue to make my voice heard, to promote mental health awareness, education and advocacy. I will stand up. Life isn’t about me, but I won’t have it happening without me, either. Because I’m still here.