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Why Peer Support Works: Where Empathy and Shared Experience Uplift Others.

When individuals with shared experience come together and help uplift each other it paves the way for empowerment.

There were times in my own personal journey where I felt so hopelessly alone that I didn't know what to do for myself. I was completely crumbling under the weight of the world's expectation and not knowing what exactly was happening to me. It wasn't until I read a woman's blog post explaining her struggles and how she healed and worked through them that I even realized that was an option for me. It instilled hope in me. It showed me a way of life I never thought was possible for me. From that moment on I pushed myself to take back control over my life because if this woman did it, so could I.

Then years later I decided to create an open mic poetry night with one of my friends and the experience was something I will never forget. People from all ages came on to the mic and shared their lived experiences. One teenage girl spoke of her depression and how she couldn't leave her bed for days and the snaps roared from the crowd. An older gentlemen spoke of the troubles of war and how it lead him to insomnia and you could see the crowd nod in agreement. I would have people tell me afterwards things like:

"I've never felt so seen and heard before" and "This was the first time that I had heard someone experiencing the same things I have".

That's the power of peer support.

What does it mean to be a peer? A "peer" is an equal, someone with whom one shares demographic or social similarities. "Support" is the empathy, encouragement, and assistance peers offer one another in reciprocal relationships. (Darby Penny, 2018)

Another great example of a peer is by Sherry Mead, founder of Intentional Peer Support, "Relationships built and nurtured through shared experiences. People who have like experiences can better relate and can consequently offer more empathy and validation".

Have you ever had that "ah-ha" moment when talking to someone where they just get it? Where you want to scream and shout like "YES! EXACTLY!" after they say something you relate to or feel in your own personal journey? That is one truly special benefit of peer support, the ability to be seen and heard from someone who has walked a similar path. It is the difference between empathy, the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, and sympathy, feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.

So what is a Peer Recovery Supporter? According to SAMSHA, "A peer support worker is someone with the lived experience of recovery from a mental health condition, substance use disorder, or both. They provide support to others experiencing similar challenges. They provide non-clinical, strengths-based support and are “experientially credentialed” by their own recovery journey (Davidson, et al., 1999). Peer support workers may be referred to by different names depending upon the setting in which they practice. Common titles include: peer specialists, peer recovery coaches, peer advocates, and peer recovery support specialists".

In short, peer support is using personal lived experiences to uplift and hold hope for others who are struggling.

What is the purpose of Peer Support services? There are many purposes of being a peer support worker but here we will name just a few.

  • Utilize experiences with mental illness to connect with others and foster their recovery.

  • Provide non-hierarchical relationships focused on growth.

  • Compliment clinical services.

  • Engage peers who otherwise may not be willing to receive services.

  • Advocacy and education.

So why does peer support work?

You can take a look at this PDF from SAMSHA that goes into detail on the effectiveness of peer support, how it works, and why it helps!

But from the perspective of the Recovery Center there are many reasons why it works

  • Shared Perspective: when two people share a similar perspective it can make us feel seen and heard because we know the other person has "walked in our shoes" and been through similar things as us. There is such a power and understanding in knowing the other person has been where you have and lived and thrived to tell the tale.

  • Empathy: when talking to a peer supporter you get the empathy piece, the piece that understands your journey from an emotional place. Empathy is something that isn't always found in spaces like your workplace or within your family, sometimes even in clinical spaces peers don't feel that they are being met with empathy, only sympathy. Empathy helps bridge the gap and help others feel less alone.

  • Hope: much like myself earlier in this blog post, it's hard to find that hope when you're struggling, especially if it's been for a long period of time. Peers help others to hold their hope, harness it, and give it back to them when they're ready to see it. Being able to see another person who has shared your experience power through and still succeed, it gives us hope that we can continue one. Which leads me to my next point!

  • Empowerment: by seeing another peer who has been in your shoes succeed, move forward, grow, built, and maintain recovery we realize that recovery is possible! Seeing another peer push forward after all the adversity just shows to us that we can do it too.

  • Community: there's never a hierarchy with peer support, you are just two people working towards the same goal of recovery. This leveled field helps to ensure comfortability for both the peer and the peer supporter, it helps humanize everyone involved and provides a sense of safety.

Those are just the little tidbits into why peer support is so important and why it works in saving lives. Here at the Recovery Center we see it every single day. Peers who came to us hopeless and looking for meaning walked out with a new job, a newfound sense of security, and hope that they're not alone on their journey and they have the tools to work through their struggles.

In my journey, it took me feeling seen, heard and understood to really value my place in this world. I was once so incredibly lost and hopeless that I never thought I was make it through the dark depths of my own personal trauma. But because I saw someone else make it through theirs, live to tell the tale, and even become successful I was able to have that hope for myself.

Seeing others recovery, learning about their journey and what helped them along the way, made a huge difference in my life. If it wasn't for that blog post, I wouldn't be writing this one. That's the power and impact of peer support, even at a small scale like someone posting their experience on the internet, it still made such a difference to me. Just like peer support and peer support workers make such a difference to the people they serve.

I chose to recover because someone else showed me it was possible.


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