Increasingly, within the mental health system, the benefits of employing peer support workers are being recognised.
‘What is peer support?’ you may ask. Peer support is when people with lived experience share their knowledge and experience with their peers by supporting them towards recovery, drawing on their own experiences to help others move forward. The support they provide can be practical, emotional or social depending on the specific role of the peer support worker.
A report published earlier this year from the independent Mental Health Taskforce to the NHS in England, ‘The Five Year Forward View on Mental Health’, called for more paid peer support workers to be employed by the NHS and that “services must be designed in partnership with people who have mental health problems and their carers.” The report acknowledged that greater emphasis needed to be put on people with lived experience in designing and developing services, adding: “Co-production with experts by experience should also be a standard approach to commissioning and design.”
These recommendations have recently been implemented by Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust. During July and August, earlier this year, the trust rolled out its Recovery College for All programme; a series of workshops developed and delivered by service users and health care professionals for people affected with mental health. The sessions were so successful that there are plans to launch a full Recovery College for All Prospectus later this year. In the trust’s publication, Trust Talk, Ali Simpson, Head of Patient Experience and Recovery, stated: “This is an exciting year. We are welcoming peer support workers to the Trust, providing our first Recovery College for All courses, as well as training staff to ensure we maintain a focus on the recovery of our service users.”
Employing people with lived experience of mental health provides hope and opportunity for those people affected by mental health and it’s empowering for both the peer support worker and service user. The policy of employing peer support workers needs to be implemented across all mental health trusts. The same is true when it comes to the criminal justice system, especially those with drug and alcohol issues. Their lived and shared experience can help others in turning their lives around and make it more meaningful. And, of course, there are social and economic benefits too. Rather than being dependent on welfare benefits and the health system, employed peer support workers are able to live more independent lives and so contribute to the health system through employment and taxation.
For instance, IMROC (Implementing Recovery through Organisational Change) the not-for-profit organisation which promotes recovery and wellbeing within mental health services, have stated “that the use of peer support workers had strong potential to deliver cost savings while simultaneously delivering a wide range of health and social benefits.”
Peer support workers or ‘experts by experience’ are able to demonstrate that recovery is possible for those with a mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, who wish to return to work, whether voluntary or paid. They have a much stronger empathy due to their personal experience that some professional health workers may lack, but by working together and taking a collaborative approach they can produce more effective outcomes for patients. For those service users within the mental health system it can be empowering and inspiring. For too long people with mental health problems have been written off or ignored, but given the chance and with the right training and support they can recover and return to work, or at least lead more fulfilling lives. It can also result in a decrease in hospital re-admissions. Peer support workers are living examples of such people turning their lives around and making a positive contribution to the very services that have helped them and this is why we need to employ more peer support worker with lived experience and who can share their expertise. Surely this must be a good thing?