Peer workers are individuals with experience living with a mental illness or addiction issues, who are trained to act as a guide through the mental health system, but they are so much more, a peer worker is living breathing proof that recovery happens.
Peer workers share experiences – something that a counsellor or medical professional who does not share these experiences may not be able to do. From sharing coping strategies to helping navigate the mental health system, the relationship between an individual and their certified peer supporter is one that is supportive and encouraging. It inspires hope.
At CMHA Waterloo Wellington, we are fortunate to have 29 peer staff roles; we also have over 70 volunteers within Self Help & Peer Support. Volunteer opportunities are often a stepping-stone to returning to work for many people. Our Self Help & Peer Support sites focus on recovery skill building for people who want to learn more skills to create change. On average 50 people per day access groups and 1:1 support at CMHA WW through Self Help &Peer Support. Self Help & Peer Support offers a range of programs and services as well as groups that have no wait list to join and require no registration, click here to view the calendar of groups offered.
The role of peer support is rapidly expanding its scope of work not only at CMHA WW, but throughout the mental health system of care. In 2008, CMHA WW had 13 peer roles, that has expanded to 52 roles (29 within CMHA plus another 23 non-CMHA peer staff that the Centre for Excellence in Peer Support works with). CMHA WW has peer workers embedded in Cambridge Memorial Hospital, Conestoga College, and as part of our team-based care teams (First Episode of Psychosis, FACT – Flexible Assertive Community Treatment Team). Additionally Skills for Safer Living is a team of peer workers providing a hybrid peer support and clinical approach to assist people who have lived experience of suicide attempts.
CMHA Waterloo Wellington is a leader in peer support. Last year, we began an innovative partnership with Conestoga College where we have a professional peer worker embedded on campus for students. Conestoga has created a space for students in distress to go that has a holistic approach and works on a drop-in basis for those who may not be comfortable with the initial idea of going to counselling, this is where our Peer worker meets with students. It is designed to be a student-driven space, where students can learn about and practice wellness skills. At the same time CMHA WW’s Centre for Excellence in Peer Support also created a toolkit for supervising peer workers, click here to view the toolkit.
CMHA Waterloo Wellington provides peer support training to other CMHA branches and mental health and addiction organizations. We have seen an increased desire for training both locally and provincially. Someone who has worked as a peer delivers the training; it’s specific to the Ontario context of peer support – paying attention to the histories of peer support, the spaces it is practiced, and where peer roles are growing. It also addresses top areas that supervisors and peer workers have identified needing training in such as intentional use of lived experience, documentation, communicating about confidentiality, reflective practice, and relationships with non-peer colleagues, and using a trauma-informed approach. Importantly, it focuses on concrete skills to put peer support values (hope, self-determination, meaningful choice, harm reduction, recovery, non-judgemental, and social justice and inclusion) into practice and how to stay grounded in those values.
As an organization, CMHA WW values the knowledge and lens that peer workers bring to mental health and addictions care. Peer workers help create pathways to recovery and resiliency and inspire and support people to achieve the quality of life they desire.