Reflections on Peer Support

“Recovery is not just for exceptional people.”

Patricia Deegan’s profound quote was only the beginning of a series of amazing keynotes and presentations at the 1st National Peer Support Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

For those of you who have never heard of Pat Deegan, she is a psychologist, and public speaker extraordinaire with lived mental health experience.

 As you might have figured out by my picture, the lobster in Halifax is amazing!

The first definition for the word exceptional is: forming an exception or rare instance; unusual. Its first synonym is ‘uncommon’.

Recovery from mental illness is not rare. Most people with mental illness do in fact recover. We need to remember that there is potential for every patient. If we as health care providers and facilitators don’t believe in our patients and if our patients don’t believe in themselves, well then, who will?

“The mentally ill are…”

This is a commonly used phrase in mental health literature. Pat talked about how she struggled with this sentence for hours until she wrote “Those of us who experience mental illness.” It may be a small change, but it is quite powerful. It is not about us and them. We are essentially, the same.

“We are equal. No one is more or less human than one another,” reiterated Romeo Dallaire, former Lieutenant General turned mental health advocate.

Stephane Grenier, former Lieutenant Colonel, pointed out both the power and simplicity in a single conversation. As Peer Supporters we recognize this simplicity and try to incorporate it into our work. We must bring empathy and genuineness to our simplest of conversations. We are not confiding ‘secrets’ to our patients when we say we may have ‘slipped-up’- we are simply being human, genuine, and transparent. It is human nature to fall and get back up again. This simple conversation creates honest and open communication which is so pertinent to recovery and well-being.

David Goldbloom, a well-known psychiatrist and Senior Medical Advisor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health explained the metaphor of Peer Support and a Global Positioning System (GPS).

“Peer Support is like a GPS. It doesn’t tell you how stupid you are because you made the wrong turn. It recalculates and gets you back on track.”

It is not our place to judge anyone based on their wrong turns. We all have gone right when we should have gone left and vice versa. (Or if you’re like my mother, you just always turn right when in doubt. Hence why she is always lost and needs me as a literal GPS).

Moving on, Peer Support needs to be intertwined with all aspects of the treatment team. After all, we are all in this together to help our patients.

Stephane shared a story of his own, one of disconnect. As a Peer Supporter, the doctor asked him to take a patient out for a walk. Stephane asked if there was anything he needed to know about the patient and the doctor responded by saying “No, that’s confidential.” Stephane might have been more prepared (and less surprised) for this walk if the doctor had mentioned that this particular patient had a propensity for public urination.

I have been working as a Peer Support Specialist at Ontario Shores for almost two years and I want to offer thanks to all treatment teams for making me feel included in the patients care plans and for not sending me on my way with a public urinator.

Okay, I digress. The final session at the conference was a presentation by members from the University of Ottawa regarding the blurred line of being not professional enough or too professional. Where we sit on that continuum at Ontario Shores has not been clearly defined but I agree with Romeo Dallaire’s statement that “Peer Support is a force multiplier and maximizes professional therapy and medication.”

We offer many groups and individual sessions for our inpatients and outpatients of Ontario Shores but these are not meant to be therapy. They do build on foundations of other disciplines and offer therapeutic value but it is via support and connections.

I would like to conclude by informing readers (I like to refer to you as my fans) that anyone in the hospital can refer a patient to Peer Support groups or individual sessions by referral. Also, patients can ask us personally to meet on a regular basis or to join in on a group.