I have been an official peer supporter (completed course work, passed the test for the state of Ohio) for almost a year. Before that, I was trained to facilitate support groups and teach certain courses, and before that, I was a volunteer for a mental health charity. I’ve been an unofficial peer supporter for many years, which is to say I used my lived experienced with bipolar disorder to help other people reach recovery.
Recently, while on Stigma Fighter’s Facebook page, a friend posted that she was working toward becoming a certified peer supporter for her state and wondered if anyone had any tips. I immediately thought of about a million tips, but Facebook tends to frown on million-word comments. So I narrowed it down to the top three:
1 – A Certified Peer Supporter’s Opinion is Often Irrelevant
Many of us are opinionated people and eagerly share our opinions with others. But when doing peer support, it’s important to remember our opinions are largely irrelevant. It really doesn’t matter what we think; it matters what the people we are helping think – and people tend to think differently from each other.
Recovery looks different to everyone. Just because therapy, medication, and talking to my friends helped me doesn’t necessarily mean it will help the next person. People reach recovery in all types of different ways and find different things valuable. I like to think of myself as a tour guide in an art museum. It’s my job to show people the art, not tell them which art they are “supposed” to like.
2 – Certified Peer Supporters Need to Have Thick Skin
Taking fewer things personally is good advice for all of us, but it’s very important not to take anything personally in the role of peer supporter. People need support when they are hurting. It’s not uncommon for them to become upset and take it out on the person standing in front of them.
As professionals, it’s vital to stay calm and set strong boundaries. A large part of a peer supporter’s job is to deescalate out-of-control emotions, comfort people when they are fearful, and help them reach a place where they can more effectively participate in their own recovery.
Mental illness (and addiction and trauma) can lead people down dark paths. People are often untrusting and are very vulnerable when they begin seeking help. As peer supporters, we need to build rapport and trust. This doesn’t mean be a pushover – no one is saying to take abuse – but it does mean staying calm and setting clear and consistent boundaries without escalating.
It also means forgiving people when they make mistakes. Just because someone crossed a line last week doesn’t mean they will this week. Be quick to forgive when people show remorse. Forgiveness and understanding are very importation in this line of work.
3 – Peer Supporters Can’t Help Everyone
Beyond being literally impossible for any of us to help everyone, I also mean that peer supporters can’t help everyone due to limitations on what we’re permitted to do. We can’t prescribe meds, for example. We aren’t therapists. There are many things that are simply outside our scope of work.
Also, there will be times when, despite our best efforts, we will need to walk away. There are people with whom we won’t “click” and we need to be professional enough to hand them off to someone else. That person may interact better with someone older, younger, of a different gender, or just with different lived experience or personality traits.
Remember, it isn’t about us, it is about the people we serve. Our feelings, emotions, and desires aren’t the goals of providing peer support. The goal is to support our peers. It is crucial to remember that.
The biggest hurdle for me was managing my personal expectations. To this day, I need to remind myself that my job is to meet people where they are and help them get to where they want to be. While I wish that people were in a different place, or behaved differently, or listened better (or whatever), that isn’t the reality of the work I chose.
As long as a peer supporter remembers to put the client’s needs first, everything will be fine. If this were easy, the world wouldn’t need us.