The power of peer workers
"All the literature suggests people become more well. In fact you'll have the most reliable, punctual, engaged staff member you could hope for."
Gabrielle Le Bon, social worker
The nurses at Lismore Hospital’s acute mental health unit thought the woman working alongside them looked familiar.
“Several have come up over the time I’ve been working there, and said, ‘Weren’t you that person who used to sit out there on that seat and never say anything?’” recounts Leisa, a peer worker at the hospital. “I said, ‘Yes, that was me.’ They couldn’t believe it was the same person.”
The development within mental health systems of a peer workforce, in which people who themselves have experienced mental illness are employed to support people in distress, is backed by strong research evidence. It shows they can offer exceptional empathy and help restore hope by sharing their own stories and recovery strategies.
But in a country town, becoming a peer worker often means also embracing as colleagues the people who used to lock your door and dispense your medication.
Leisa, who previously had not worked for 23 years, is happy to model what peer work is about. “The staff who work in mental health units rarely get the opportunity to witness people with mental illness living well,” she says. “Mental health staff work alongside people who are acutely unwell on a daily basis – they could benefit from an opportunity to be inspired by people’s recovery stories.”
Leisa is a graduate of the Lived Experience Project*, begun in 2011 – the first large-scale project in NSW to support people with a lived experience of mental illness and recovery to achieve a qualification and transition to employment as peer workers.
Rohan, who also graduated from the project, now works in the Personal Helpers and Mentors program at the Lismore branch of the counselling agency, Interrelate. His role is a new one, but it has been well supported by his managers and colleagues.
“If I want advice and help I feel really comfortable about asking for it,” Rohan says. “At the same time I don’t feel like I have to run everything past someone. I’ve discovered I’m actually really good at relating to people and using my lived experience as a form of expertise. It’s the first real role I’ve had where I feel capable and confident, and that’s definitely had a positive effect on me.”
Monica is using her peer work skills in the mental health and homelessness sector after being unable to work for more than a decade. She says, “I was under the misguided impression that I needed to be fully recovered to be employable. I felt stuck. I desperately wanted to move forward but I feared that disclosing my illness would minimise my chances because there is a reluctance to employ people with mental health issues. This was an amazing opportunity – I suddenly realised that my lived experience of mental ill health was a desirable skill.”
Social worker Gabrielle Le Bon worked in partnership with a range of agencies to develop the Lived Experience Project through the Northern Rivers Social Development Council. The project was created in response to an identified shortage of skills in the mental health sector, a high incidence of mental illness and a higher than average rate of unemployment in the Northern Rivers region of NSW.
The project proposal was to provide 20 people with a lived experience of mental illness and recovery with an opportunity to undertake prevocational training, and a Certificate IV in Community Services Work. They also had an opportunity to form a mentoring relationship with a mental health worker whilst completing a work experience placement and transitioning into paid employment as peer workers.
In fact, 70 people applied and Ms Le Bon was able to expand the intake to 32.
“It said to us that there were lots of people with lived experience in the community who wanted the opportunity to use their lived experience to support others and to obtain meaningful employment,” says Ms Le Bon. The Northern Rivers Social Development Council continues to receive telephone calls from people wanting to know how they can become a peer worker.
All the participants finished their Certificate lV within six months, though on average it had been 20 years since they had last studied and many did not have computer skills.
The bigger challenge was educating potential employers and getting mental health and community services organisations on board.
Ms Le Bon said many employers told her “we’d love to support the project and employ someone, but we don’t want to be responsible for causing stress or contributing to a relapse. People with mental illness shouldn’t really work in our sector because they will be exposed to people in crisis and they may lack the professional boundaries required for the job”.
She told them, “Research clearly demonstrates that people with lived experience actually become more well in response to the opportunity of meaningful work. In fact if you employ someone with a lived experience of mental illness you are likely to recruit the most reliable, punctual and engaged staff member you could hope for.”
Some employers initially discouraged peer workers from sharing their stories with consumers, believing these experiences might be too traumatic. However, the employer education and training delivered by project staff provided opportunities for the peers to share their recovery stories and demonstrate the unique expertise of their lived experience.
Over time, employers have embraced the unique value of peer workers and the number of paid positions continues to grow. There are now peer workers at mental health and community organisations throughout the Northern Rivers, Ms Le Bon says, and three-quarters of the project’s graduates are working as peers.
Ms Le Bon looks forward to a time when “every person whose life is affected by mental illness has a choice about who walks beside them on their recovery journey and peer workers are recognised and remunerated as expert contributors to mental health services”.
*The Lived Experience Project was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations through the Innovation Fund. The project was supported by NSW Department of Education and Communities and delivered by the Northern Rivers Social Development Council and ACE Community Colleges in partnership with On Track Community Programs, CRS Australia and ONQ Human Resources.