By: Natalie Leibowitz, Summer Outreach Student
A culture of recovery involves being able to share our stories and learn from each other. Our stories may be different, but we have all overcome challenges in our lives and have much to share in terms of strategies for wellness and recovery. It means being able to openly discuss difficult topics and feelings, without having to hold back out of fear of being judged. It involves taking the time to ask others how they are doing and genuinely listening to their response. We strive to create an environment where self-care in valued. It is also important to be aware of the kinds of resources that are available in our communities in order to be able to guide others in receiving necessary support. Creating a culture of recovery also means that we carry this supportive environment through to all areas of our lives. We allow another person to feel that they have someone to turn to when they need it, and in doing so we are reducing loneliness and creating a sense of togetherness.
Much of my learning in a recent peer support training program relates to the development of a culture of recovery/ peer support community that we strive for here at Riverwalk. From June 23rd-August 15th, 2015 I had the opportunity to participate in the Stella’s Place Peer Support Training program held at George Brown College in Toronto. The purpose of the program was to train young adults to provide peer support services for those in the 18-29 age group. Young adults were also involved in the design and facilitation of the training program. This program was designed in response to the need for peer support services geared to the young adult population. I was joined by 26 other participants who all have lived experience of mental health challenges and are interested in entering the field as peer support workers.
The program was facilitated in a group format by 5 Peer Support Workers who are currently working in the field in various settings. There were 60 in-class session hours in addition to 40 hours of home readings and reflections. Learning in the sessions occurred through guest presentations, discussions, skills practices, and role plays. We had presenters discuss their involvement in hospital-based peer support, community mental health settings, drop-in support, online peer support, mental health services navigation, and more informal peer support settings.
Topics covered in the sessions included:
- Engaging peers
- Building supportive relationships
- Active listening and intentional sharing
- Advocacy skills (self-advocacy and system advocacy)
- Peace building
- Inclusion and diversity
- Safety and responding to crises
- Community navigation (navigating the mental health system in Ontario)
In the training program, I met quite a diverse group of people who brought so much life experience and richness to the group. Hearing each person’s story and how much they have overcome was both enlightening and inspiring. A safe and supportive environment was created amongst the group, which allowed us to be open and honest. This setting was also conducive to being able to challenge ourselves within the group and to learn from one another. In addition, I had the opportunity to meet peer support professionals working in the field in a number of different roles. These peer support workers served as mentors to all of the participants in the program, and continue to support us in achieving our goals for entry into the field and in maintaining wellness.
Through this program, I have gained a clear understanding of the role of peer support within the mental health system. I have also learned how I can most effectively utilize my experiences in recovery to assist others in developing their own recovery tools and in navigating the mental health system. I have developed a knowledge-base of mental health services and resources available in the Toronto area, many of which I was not previously aware of. The program has allowed me to understand the common challenges that young adults face in seeking support and treatment for mental health issues.
I would say that the most important lesson that I learned about peer support is that just being there for the person (listening to their story, validating their thoughts and feelings, providing a supportive and non-judgemental space) is the most valuable asset of a peer support worker.