Who are Peer Workers and what do they do?

Peer workers are people with a lived experience of issues such as mental illness, and who draw on these experiences to help and support others in similar circumstances.

The lived experience of such support workers enables them to connect in a meaningful way with their clients and provide a greater level of understanding and support.

What Is a Peer Worker?

A peer worker is someone who provides social, emotional and practical support to clients in need. This is enhanced by their personal experience, enabling them to make a strong connection with those who are going through similar experiences.

Workers may have personal experiences in recovering from an issue (consumer peer worker) or may have assisted in the care of family and friends with the same issues (carer peer worker).

The goal of an interpersonal approach is to encourage a lasting change in individuals who are struggling with personal issues, such as substance abuse or mental illness. A person with valuable lived experiences can complement the skills of mental health professionals and add to the care options available to patients.

What Does a Peer Worker Do?

Peer workers help to support, inspire and educate their clients. They assist in building confidence and resilience in those who are struggling, inspiring them with examples from their life and showing them that their personal challenges can be overcome.

Importantly, unlike other professional supportive relationships, peer workers are not solely at a distance, but perform the role of both mentor and carer.

This personal connection can help to break down a client’s barriers and is an essential component in building trust. This trusted relationship is often a challenge to achieve for more removed and impersonal support services but is an important aspect of encouraging a client’s recovery.

Who Do They Help?

Peer worker’s draw on a variety of different personal and community experiences, including:

– Mental health
– Indigenous services
– Drug and alcohol abuse
– Youth work
– LGBTI+
– Immigration
– Refugee services

They play an important part in assisting and supporting communities, while maintaining a people-first approach.

Peer support workers can be pivotal in assisting patients with mental health issues to recover and eventually re-enter the workforce. They are often the beneficiaries of such support systems themselves, having been helped and then going on to help others.

Why Are They Important?

Peer workers perform a needed role in the healthcare community. As they have dealt with hard times in their lives, they can share this experience in terms that are easily understood by those going through the same struggle. These personal stories can be a powerful source of inspiration and help establish a shared connection.

Peer workers are especially important in overcoming cultural barriers. Refugees for example, can have trouble adjusting to a new homeland. A peer support worker may be able to share their heritage to help overcome language and cultural barriers and provide effective support.

Reports show that up to 45% of Australians are expected to experience a common mental health disorder as a result of  depression, anxiety or substance abuse in their lifetime, forecasting a greater need for carers and support workers.

Where Do They Work?

Peer support workers can be found in a variety of roles and institutions, including:

– Community centres
– Hospitals
– Aged and disability support services
– Not-for-profit foundations (NFP)
– Non-government organisation (NGO)
– Mental health services
– Government healthcare services

However, they are most commonly found in public health services and the NGO sector.

Future of Peer Work

The peer workforce in Australia is currently under-supported with a need for more people to take on the role. Qualifications such as the Certificate IV Mental Health Peer Work have helped to prepare and train workers, while recognition of the importance of the role in the community continues to improve.

Further investments in peer work can help to address the growing need for mental health support within communities and assist with ensuring a strong rate of recovery.

More information on Peer Support services across Australia can be found here.

Author’s Bio:

This article was written by Daniel Defendi, who recommends Lifeplan for peer work assistance in Perth. You can catch Daniel on LinkedIn to discuss this piece.

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