A Paradigm Shift

“Broadly defined, “peer support” refers to a process through which people who share common experiences or face similar challenges come together as equals to give and receive help based on the knowledge that comes through shared experience.” ~Riessman, (1989)

“A “peer” is an equal, someone with whom one shares demographic or social similarities. “Support” expresses the kind of deeply felt empathy, encouragement, and assistance that people with shared experiences can offer one another within a reciprocal relationship.” ~Penney, (2018)

From the Core Values:

Mutuality: The peer relationship is mutual and reciprocal. Peer support breaks down hierarchies. The peer support worker and the peer equally co-create the relationship, and both participate in boundary creation.

When discussing mental health support, for many people the first resources and relationships that come to mind are clinical relationships – with a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, etc. Clinical support has been the dominant mental health framework in recent history.

Peer support differs from clinical support in many important ways. The role of a peer support worker is fundamentally different from that of a clinician, and is especially evident in the distinctive goals of the peer relationship as compared with the goals of the clinical relationship. There can be a tendency to measure peer support roles against clinical roles; when we do, it can seem that peer support doesn’t measure up. But looking at peer support through a clinical lens is unhelpful at best; in fact, when we speak of peer support, the paradigm is so different that it is almost like speaking a different language. Peer support workers fill a necessary gap in the system. When people with common lived experience come together, the connection that can happen is powerful, inspiring, and can fuel transformation.

“Me too.” Hearing those two words can help us break through an ocean of loneliness, isolation, and shame.

When we are facing what feels like an insurmountable situation and we meet someone who has gone through a similar experience and come out the other side, we often experience a great sense of relief.

It is an amazing gift to be with someone who listens deeply to us with a compassion that can only come from a mutual understanding of personal suffering.

Connection with acknowledgment and a spirit of mutuality matters.

Nurturing connection takes time and intention. If we create too much busyness in our peer support work and don’t leave enough space and time for meaningful connection to occur, everyone loses out on the lasting benefits of peer support.

This curriculum will guide you through a process of understanding the shift toward a different way of supporting others – toward a service that is based on a foundation of mutuality. It is important to pause and think about what that mutuality actually means. It can be easy to speak the language of mutuality but until we unpack what supporting someone in an equal and horizontal way means, we will not fully grasp the meaning of mutuality.

Peer-developed peer support is a non-hierarchical approach with origins in informal self-help and consciousness-raising groups organized in the 1970s by people in the ex-patients’ movement. It arose in reaction to negative experiences with mental health treatment and dissatisfaction with the limits of the mental patient role. Peer support among people with psychiatric histories is closely intertwined with experiences of powerlessness within the mental health system and with activism promoting human rights and alternatives to the medical model. ~Darby Penney (2018)


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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