About peer work
Peer support is a type of support provided by people with a lived or living experience of a mental health condition, or drug or alcohol issues.
Peer workers draw from their own personal experience and learnings to support others in a peer-to-peer relationship, providing hope and guidance, showing that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
A peer worker is typically employed in a paid or voluntary capacity with lived experience being an essential part of their job description accompanied by additional skills and/or qualifications.
“Peer work is about finding mutuality through shared experiences and inspiring hope in recovery relationships.”
– Finding North Network Member
Tips for new peer workers:
For some people becoming a peer worker is their chance to give back and help others who stand where they once stood. A chance to use what they have learnt to support others to find meaning and understanding in what they are experiencing. Reasons aside, it is important that your health and well-being remain a priority throughout your professional journey.
Here are a few tips recommended by others with lived experience:
- Empathy is important
- Make time for personal reflection and practicing self-care
- Ask for support if you start to feel overwhelmed
- Be friendly, remembering you are not there to be their friend
- Find someone you trust to talk to about how you are feeling – engaging in professional peer supervision can be very helpful
- Don’t be hard on yourself – you are still allowed to have bad days too
Over the past century, peer support has gained momentum and the true value of lived experience is finally being recognised.
However, like many areas of health, there is still a long way to go and unfortunately, a number of misconceptions still exist.
Common misconceptions include:
- Peer work is not a valid form of therapeutic support. FALSE – evidence suggests that peer support is both an effective and beneficial method of support.
- Peer workers are too fragile to work in mental health. FALSE – regardless of who you are and whether you identify as someone as having lived experienced or not we are all human and we will all take days off work. Just because someone is a peer worker does not mean that they will require more sick days than any other person.
- Lived experience and peer work are the same thing. FALSE – having lived experience does not mean you are a peer worker. Not everyone with a lived experience wants to be a peer worker. Becoming a peer worker requires training and, in some roles, formal qualifications.
Tips for employers:
Setting up a workplace that supports the health and well-being of your team is important. If your organisation is new to employing peer workers or would like to improve the support you are offering here are a few tips:
- Preparation – ensure that you set people up for success and not failure. Be clear about the roles and responsibilities of peer workers within your organisation.
- Training – have you sourced relevant training for your peer workers? This may include training such as Intentional Peer Support, trauma-informed practice, professional boundaries, communication, and advocacy skills, or how to safely share their story.
- Supervision – ensure appropriate specialised supervision is in place.
- Workplace culture – providing a workplace that supports trust, flexibility and open communication can support the health of your employees.
- Mental Health First Aid – Mental Health First Aid training can teach your team members to understand and support someone who is experiencing changes in their mental health.
- Professional boundaries – part of a peer worker’s role is to share their personal lived experience however professional boundaries are still important.
“Employers supporting peer workers need to remember that peer work is vastly different to clinical counselling and psychotherapy. Peer workers give a lot of themselves and often use their lived experiences when conducting their work. This means bringing up very personal subject matters and sharing them to benefit and inspire others. This can be a taxing task.”
– Finding North Network Member.
The following video by the Mental Health Commission of NSW discusses professional peer supervision.
Peer support can create a sense of hope for those who may not be feeling hopeful. It provides a space of shared understanding and common ground. Peer workers not only model recovery, they help to reduce stigma and promote normalisation of mental health.
Other benefits of peer support include the ability to display greater empathy due to shared experience and providing a safe space for people to share their experiences and feel understood.
“Peer support is a great way to connect with others who have a more intimate understanding of your experiences. Sometimes all it takes to inspire hope is knowing that you are not alone.”
– Finding North Network Member
In the below video, created by Project Air, Jackie talks about what it means to be a peer worker.
Becoming a mental health peer worker
There is increasing evidence to show that peer work is a beneficial form of support for those experiencing a mental health condition. Whilst the role of a peer worker may slightly differ across organisations, the basic values remain the same.
If you are considering becoming a peer worker, you may be wondering what skills you will need and how you can get started.
Research tells us that peer workers can at times be more effective in establishing rapport and building trust than other members of the support team. Having the ability to show empathy and to relate to others with a lived experience helps to create a mutual peer-to-peer relationship.
As a peer worker, you will be required to have an understanding of recovery principles, engage in reflective practice and to be able to share parts of your personal experiences whilst maintaining professional boundaries.
Below are a list of professional development opportunities that can assist you in your path to becoming a peer worker:
- Certificate IV Mental Health Peer Work
- Certificate IV in Mental Health
- Safe Story Telling
- ASIST Training
- Intentional Peer Support
- Trauma-informed Practice
The below video provides an overview of the Peer Work Program offered through Mind Australia.
Resources and support
Guidelines and information
- The National Lived Experience (Peer) Workforce Development Guidelines
- Queensland Framework for the Development of the Mental Health Lived Experience Workforce
- National Lived Experience (Peer) Workforce Development Guidelines – Lived Experience Roles
- Lived Experience Framework for NSW
- Tip Sheets: Lived Experience Australia
- Peer Workforce Developmental Strategy (Tasmania)
- Peer Work Strategic Framework – Western Australian Association for Mental Health
- The Western Australian Lived Experience (Peer) Workforces Framework
Useful services and resources for peers
- WA Peer Supporters’ Network
- VMIAC – Victoria’s Peak Organisation for people with lived experience
- Finding North Network (National online network)
- Being – Peer Workforce Network (NSW)
- ACT Mental Health Consumer Network
- LELAN – SA Lived Experience Leadership & Advocacy Network
- TEMHCO – Top End Mental Health Consumers Organisation
- CoMHWA – Consumers of Mental Health WA
- MHLET (Tasmania)
- Lived Experience Telephone Support Service
- Looking After Yourself (LE Australia)