Peer Support is an extremely effective and evidence-based mental health service that uses a person’s lived experience to help others in their recovery. This blog is part of our new yearlong series, where each month we will take a deeper look at what it means to work as a Peer Support Specialist and how to adhere to the 12 ethical guidelines created by the National Association of Peer Supporters (NAPS).

 For this blog, we will be focusing on the guideline that states Peer Support Specialists facilitate change.

Why is this guideline important?

The Mental Health Consumer Movement (or Peer Movement) is not a movement most people are familiar with. This may be because unlike similar movements, like the past and present Civil Rights movement, it isn’t brought to the public eye or experienced the same level of awareness. However, the truth is that so much of how we address mental health and substance use conditions today is directly a result of the Peer Movement. And we still have so much further to go.

Many of us have heard stories of how those with mental health conditions often underwent unnecessary and dehumanizing treatments against their will. Those who needed help were instead seen as “objects of treatment” and were stripped of their human rights while far away from the public eye. However, around the 1970’s, Patrick Tang’s article titled “A Brief History of Peer Support: Origins” describes how:

“This social movement empowered former mental health service users to help each other and advocate for themselves… to speak out about systematic mistreatment and denial of civil liberties while under the care of state mental hospitals”.

Those who had seen and experienced the awful ways people were treated used their knowledge of the system to actively protest against it. This, combined with the growing realization that we needed a better approach to treating those with mental health needs, eventually helped lead to the concept of community mental health care that we see used today.

Truly, we owe a great deal of how we approach mental health to the peers who used their experiences to fight against injustices. In keeping with this tradition, it is important that Peer Support Specialists continue to use their voice as both consumers and mental health professionals to advocate for positive change.

What does this guideline look like in practice?

Advocating and facilitating change can take all kinds of forms. Whether it’s speaking on someone’s behalf during a meeting with a treatment team or speaking in front of legislators during public testimony. There are so many opportunities for Peer Support Specialists to facilitate change.

When thinking about how to bring about change, try to begin with the desire to ensure that every voice is heard and that when voicing your own feelings, they add to the conversation rather than block out what others might have to say. You don’t even necessarily need to agree with a person you are advocating for. However, simply by pointing out the legitimacy of their concerns, you are inspiring change in how peers can be heard.

Not everyone has to journey to their state capitol to advocate for their fellow peers either. Simply going to a doctor’s appointment with someone and supporting them in requesting certain kinds of care provides an opportunity to change the way people receive treatment when working on their mental health or substance use condition.

How to use this guideline moving forward

Any time you take on the role of a Peer Support Specialist, whether you are working directly with someone or simply speaking with other professionals, you should look at each conversation and opportunity through a lens of advocacy. If you feel comfortable to do so, speak out when you or someone else sense injustice or unfairness, and try to provide people with additional perspectives when it comes to their care. 

Peer Support Specialists can serve as the bridges between providers and the people they serve, and this unique responsibility can be the catalyst for more positive change in the future. 

The Importance of Bringing About Positive Change

Kristen Orzel

Kristen Oldaker has been working with the Network since January 2019 when she began as an intern, and was later hired in September of 2019 to work as the Program Coordinator. Before coming to the Network, Kristen spent many years working as an Early Childhood Educator and has taught in both Boulder and Denver since moving to Colorado in 2016. She graduated in December of 2020 from Metropolitan State University of Denver with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Minor in English Writing. In her free time Kristen enjoys wheel throwing ceramic pottery, writing poetry, and learning how to play new musical instruments.

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