Published on January 25th, 2017 | from CAMH

The Impossible Task of Talking About a Day in the Life of a Peer Support Worker

By Shannon Quinn, Peer Support Worker at CAMH’s Partial Hospital Program

CAMH currently employs 12 Peer Support Workers. If you ask any one of us what a typical day looks like you’ll get a different answer. We work on inpatient units, forensics, outpatient programs and Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams, just to name a few areas. I’d have to say an average day for a Peer Support Worker doesn’t exist. So I’d like to take a bit of this space to talk (to the best of my ability) about what Peer Work at CAMH is.

I think it might be helpful to address some of the misconceptions floating around… because trust me, I’ve heard some doozies.

Here’s what it’s not:

  • Peer Support Work is not paid friendship.
  • It is not diagnosis specific.
  • It is not a back-to-work – or some kind of goodwill bridging program – for people with a history of mental health and addiction issues.

Peer Support Work is a distinct profession. At CAMH, we follow a specific model. We work on interdisciplinary teams and are bound by the CAMH Code of Conduct, Ethics and a very strong emphasis on integrity. We have Peer Workers here who have Master’s degrees and we have individuals with diversely rich professional backgrounds…so we can get a little tetchy when someone comes up to us and asks: “What do you really want to do?”

Being a Peer Support Worker necessitates a very real respect and acknowledgment of grass roots activism. As long as there have been asylums, there have been clients talking to each other about their needs. The medical model does a lot. It doesn’t do everything. Recovery is not linear nor does it happen in a prescribed way. As Peer Support Workers we are the proud product of all the pioneers who came before us. We ride on the shoulders of brave and daring activists/individuals/dreamers.

By holding a job as a Peer Support Worker we are essentially “out” to a certain degree. We are proudly disclosing that we have lived experience. (However, don’t ask us our specific diagnosis… it’s just rude).

As Peer Workers our role is to support self-advocacy and personal autonomy, and to work with a client on their own terms.  When we enter a discussion, we are conscious and aware of any biases or barriers that may have an effect on their recovery.  We have deeply meaningful conversations around wellness and quality of life. We encourage clients to speak freely about what works and what doesn’t work for them. We discuss communication strategies for having our voices and preferences heard. We talk about stigma. We know stigma.

As a Peer Support Worker at the Partial Hospital Program, (who chose to come to CAMH after six years as a producer at CBC Radio and who is still a part-time community mental health worker at Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre) my days are filled with group facilitation, one-on-one supportive counseling, committee work and team building.

So, what’s the power in Peer Support Work? It lives in letting someone know they are not alone. It lives in walking a path together, unpacking complicated experiences about what it is to have a mental health diagnosis, what it is to have an addiction. It’s about celebrating diversity in all its gloriously messy, non-conforming iterations.

There’s another benefit that I would argue is of equal importance. By having Peer Workers on interdisciplinary teams, we sometimes find ourselves in a position where we need to question the status quo, which can feel uncomfortable. But in the end, the status quo should always be open to investigation without feeling threatened. This can help form strong healthy bonds within the team and promote creative individualized client-centred approaches.  At CAMH, we all want more. We want to do more. We want to do better. CAMH’s pursuit of excellence would be less robust if Peer Support Workers weren’t here.

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2 Responses to The Impossible Task of Talking About a Day in the Life of a Peer Support Worker

  1. Kathleen Guerrero says:

    Hi ,
    I appreciate all the empathy and support Peer Support Workers do, in giving your time, talents and resources to individuals living with addiction and serious mental illness.
    I volunteer for NAMI and I don’t have the title of a Peer Support Worker but I after 25 years of being misdiagnosed 2006 a year later my husband found NAMI and we began going to their support groups.
    I soon became very involved for 8 years working side by side my peers.
    I want to become a Peer Support Worker. I am very passionate about helping people fulfill their dreams of going back to work, having their first date or driving. . I
    I would appreciate if anyone could tell me how I can get educated in this field. Please
    Be well
    Kathleen Guerrero

  2. Salima says:

    As a client at CAMH and a student with the goal of becoming a peer support worker, I truly admire the wonderful work you do. I feel there are still so many organizations where peer workers are under rated and their work not appreciated or menial. Because of our lived experiences, I feel, we can empathize and relate with our clients much more than anyone else. Thank you for the great work you do and bringing peer support work to the forefront.

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