What is peer support in the context of mental health?
Peer support is a confidential, volunteer, non-clinical, mental health support that leverages the wisdom that comes from lived experience. Peer support is designed to be a compliment to traditional clinical care programs and not to replace them. Social support from a person with lived experience can inspire hope and empower others in similar situations.
Within a workplace peer support program, the peers and peer supporters also have the organization in which they are employed as a common ground.
Mental health peer support is grounded in hopeful recovery and self-determination. It is valued for its authenticity because the peer supporter has also lived through a similar experience and has found their way to recovery. Peer relationships are built around a deep mutual understanding and trust, and are not built on the basis of power differentials such as those found within a patient-doctor relationship.
When or how does Peer Support occur?
Peer support occurs when an individual who has had real life experience or lived experience with a mental health challenge, and has found a path to recovery, makes themself available to help someone who is currently facing a similar challenge.
What is lived experience?
Lived experience refers to the experience that someone has had with a mental health challenge or illness (either their own or in relation to a loved one), and includes their experience towards a path of recovery and/or readiness to support others. An individual does not have to have been diagnosed with a particular mental illness (for example, clinical depression, general anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.) to have lived experience. Lived experience can also come from the day-to-day exposure to significant life experiences, and/or caring for, a family member/loved one who is dealing with a mental health challenge. Lived experience is a key requirement to become a peer supporter.
What is a mental health challenge?
A mental health challenge refers to a wide spectrum of circumstances that employees or members could face. These are not limited to the traditional clinical diagnostic categories and conditions and can include, but are not limited to:
- Feelings of depression, anxiety or anger;
- Being overwhelmed, nervous tired all the time at work; or
- Substance abuse or adopting other self-destructive behaviours.
It also includes life challenges employees may experience such as:
- Marriage breakdown;
- Serious illness in the immediate family;
- Severe workplace stress or conflict; or
- The loss of a loved one or colleague.
What is a peer supporter?
A peer supporter is an individual* who:
- Has experienced a mental health challenge, either personally or through the experience of a loved one;
- Is now in a positive state of recovery and readiness to support others;
- Has successfully completed the competency screening process; and
- Has successfully completed peer support training.
*An employee of the company or member of the organization who has a structured peer support program in place. This individual volunteers their time to support others mainly outside of formal work hours.
What is a peer?
A peer is any employee or member of the organization who is experiencing a mental health challenge or significant life challenge and who seeks support from a peer supporter.
What is the difference between an employee assistance program (EAP) and a peer support program (PSP)?
An EAP focuses primarily on the provision of confidential clinical services. The program will conduct a preliminary evaluation based on the needs of the caller and will connect the employee with a counsellor or psychologist for further consultation. The purpose is to diagnose the problem and to discuss and in some cases start treatment options.
A PSP is a non-medical intervention that focuses on holistic recovery, and not the diagnosis. The peer supporter is not a counsellor or medical professional. Their role is not to make recommendations, but rather to listen and empower the individual to start building coping strategies and support them along the recovery journey which can take months, and in some cases years. A peer supporter is there to inspire hope as they themselves have recovered.
Peer support programs (PSP) and employee assistance programs (EAP) complement one another by providing different, but necessary support services:
|Peer supporter has a similar lived experience||Clinician may not have lived experience|
|Informal setting||Formal clinical setting, scheduled meetings|
|No predetermined number of interactions||Determined number of sessions|
|Therapeutic, but not therapy||Therapy|
|No perceived power differential||Possible perceived power differential|
|Based on hope with recovery as the goal||Based on treatment options with recovery as the goal|
|Open to discussing issues beyond mental health||Addresses issues broader than mental health|
What evidence exists to prove that peer support actually works?
Click here to consult our evidence base.
Click here to consult our workplace peer support program case studies.
How do we know if our organization is ready for a peer support program?
It is important that your organization be an environment in which peer supporters feel safe disclosing personal lived experience with mental health challenges. While mental health stigma is present to some degree in most workplaces, our workplace readiness assessment will help you to determine if your organization has the policies, leadership, and culture in place to support the transparency required for this type of program, and therefore, mitigate the possibility of doing harm to peer supporters who step up to support others.
Due to the importance of this work, we will not become involved in pushing a peer support program onto your organization if we feel it is not ready or safe to do so. Rather, we will work with you to design policies and to develop a pathway for a stigma-free mindset within the organization in preparation for the eventual implementation of a peer support program.
Is it more costly to outsource the entire program to MHI rather than to simply consult with MHI to build our program and then manage it ourselves?
Over the past several years, MHI has implemented numerous peer support programs in various organizational settings and across many different sectors of the Canadian economy. When MHI developed the new subscription-based service for workplace peer support, we were concerned throughout the development process about costs. We ran our current costing model against real implementation scenarios over the past several years with various organization sizes and when all costs are put together (contracting costs during implementation + internal salary costs of staff to manage the program), the new model is actually less costly or at the very least cost neutral.
Why did MHI develop the subscription-based service rather than continue to simply consult and assist organizations in building internally managed peer support programs?
Our primary motivation for developing this new model is that most of our clients experience teething pains following the launch of the program as well as difficulties sustaining the program over subsequent years. Indeed, internal competing priorities often take over staff capacity and draw those charged with managing the peer support program towards other priorities resulting in an erosion of the program. As well, what often compound the problem are factors such as promotions, re assignments and internal moves. New staff take on a role with little knowledge transfer for a profession (peer support) that is not mainstream in the workplace and the program unintentionally receives less attention.
Why not simply do it ourselves?
20+ years of experience in good governance and management of peer support programs is what MHI brings to the table. Our policies are time-tested and rigorous, making the accountability of the program second to none, where all risks are either mitigated or simply eliminated. We supplement your peer supporters with experienced practice leadership gathered over two decades in both workplaces and the health care system.
We have competency-based selection tools to select the best candidates to become peer supporters and our training is aligned to the national Standards of Practice for peer support in Canada. Once the program is launched, your peer supporters will have immediate access to a robust and experienced back end that they can depend on to deliver peer support in keeping with the national Standard of Practice and Guidelines.
We underpin our program with a solid self-care model to mitigate the risk of relapse of peer supporters and the impact supporting others may have on them from time to time. Professional development for peer supporters is included, and program renewal is planned every two years to account for attrition and gaps from the initial implementation.
Lastly, MHI will supply you with a technology platform to measure program usage and key performance indicators and a mobile device application so that all employees can access the program through their smart phones, giving your organization the ability to bring your program into the digital era, something that is key for many and most specifically, the millennial workforce.
Trade inquiries and intellectual property:
All of MHI service offerings, programs and initiatives are underpinned by rigorous policies and research. All of which has been marketed and proven over years of implementation. This information is necessarily held by MHI closely as Intellectual Property (IP) for the benefit of our partners and clientele in the context of contract law. As MHI remains dedicated to the expansion of social support across Canada segments, we continue to seek out partnership and development opportunities that are mutually beneficial. Such detailed requests may be submitted in writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.