The following content was developed in consultation with a panel of national experts on Peer Support.*
Reaching out for Peer Support
Peer support was developed for those who may be struggling with mental health issues, as well as those who may be having difficulty with self-awareness, emotional intelligence, or accountability for their own health and wellness.
Peer support can be a step towards recovery and its benefits can include:
- Discovering a safe person, who has experienced something similar, to share concerns with in confidence.
- Hearing how others have coped and survived their journey to well-being.
- Being listened to in a non-clinical, non-judgmental, and compassionate way that empowers you to make your own decisions.
- Connecting to resources that have worked for others in their recovery.
- In some cases, support for family members as well.
Not every peer supporter will be a good fit for you. The right person will be trustworthy, helpful, and offer you a sense of hope. Ideally, you should not report to this person at work as this can create a power imbalance. Ask questions such as:
- What has been your experience with a situation like mine and how well are you now?
- What should I expect from you in terms of confidentiality?
- How will you explain our relationship to others?
- What do you have to offer me?
- What resources at work or in the community do you recommend?
- How much time do you have available for me?
- How and when will we get together?
- How many others have you helped?
- Who supports you when you need it?
Those who have been immersed in Peer Support share these insights:
You can talk to someone who has been there – maybe not exactly where you are now – but they found their way out. You can too. Stéphane Grenier, Founder and Lead Innovator, Mental Health Innovations
Peer support can help right now. It’s about making connections. Let me introduce you. Dr. Ian Arnold, Occupational Health and Safety Consultant
This could be a great opportunity to spend time with someone who has felt the same way. Identify and classify your fears to help reduce stress and anxiety. Brian Hansell, Workplace Wellness and Mental Health Advocate, HCG Hansell Consulting Group Inc.
Talk to someone who has gotten through their own journey and gets it. Have a conversation about what is happening to you without being judged. Ann Marie MacDonald, Executive Director/CEO, Mood Disorders Association of Ontario
Peer Support is about gaining confidence through a connection. A Peer Supporter will walk with you and help you go through the door to recovery. Mandi Buckner, Workplace Mental Health Consultant, MandiJBuckner Consulting
You are brave for taking the first step of reaching out for help. Mental wellness is a continuum. Get support, talk about it and healing can begin. Don Mahleka, Operations Manager, NGen Youth Centre
Peer Support is a type of emotional first aid. My motto is “Keep Calm and Call Peer Support.” Tom Barnett, Senior Consultant, Canadian Workplace Risk Management
Like mindfulness, clinical support or even exercise, Peer Support is another tool to help you become empowered in your choices and support you on your journey to wellness. It allows you to gain awareness around your emotions and self-compassion. Hayley Peek, Peer Supporter and Facilitator, Mental Health and Wellness
Becoming a Peer Supporter
Stéphane Grenier of Mental Health Innovations, and a recognized expert in the area of peer support, states: “A Peer Supporter is a person who carefully leverages their lived experience to connect, listen, relate to and support someone in a similar situation." Grenier suggests that because the Peer Supporter was able to recover, they can share hope that can be leveraged for the well-being of those they help.
Some peer supporters volunteer within mental health agencies and some are authorized by their employer to offer peer support within their workplace. The latter can be a full or part-time position, but is much more likely to be done occasionally in addition to the peer supporter’s existing job role.
Our panel of national experts offer the following for those considering taking the training to become a Peer Supporter:
Do consider it if you:
- Are able to empathetically connect with others
- Are a trustworthy and supportive listener
- Will empower and respect the right of others to make their own decisions
- Can be non-judgmental
- Are passionate about helping others
- Want to bring meaning and purpose to your own life
Don’t consider it if you:
- Lack your own effective support network
- Do not have the coping strategies to deal with the emotional distress of others
- Do not have a high level of self-awareness
- Don't keep clear boundaries about what you will and won’t do
- Have difficulty being compassionate for others or self
- Cannot actively listen without being judgmental
- Are looking for opportunities to tell your story (this is not about you)
- Will not have ongoing support and supervision as a Peer Supporter
- Have not received adequate training to feel comfortable and confident
- Are doing it for the money or recognition
Kim Sunderland, a Peer Support and Workplace Mental Health Consultant and Educator, suggests that prior to becoming a Peer Supporter you will want to:
- Continue to improve your own resilience
- Continue to be an active participant in your own well-being and self-care
- Learn to be non-judgmental about yourself and others
- Be open to sharing aspects of your story in a way that is helpful to others
- Learn more about organizational and community resources
Our panel also advise that the following should ideally be in place to support you to act as a Peer Supporter:
- Oversight/supervision – someone who provides you with ongoing advice
- Supportive management that values both your job and peer support roles
- A network of Peer Supporters – people who can share experiences and help you stay grounded in peer support principles
- A self-care plan – a way to protect your psychological health and safety
- Organizational policies to help you avoid performance problems or burnout
- Ongoing training to continually improve and support your skills
- An organization that regularly strives to overcome obstacles and remove barriers to inclusion and work success
- An organization that clearly communicates the value of peer support
Training and/or certification
Shaleen Jones, Executive Director, Peer Support Canada, shares that most certified Peer Supporters have had the support of their workplace, including doing the practicum through their (paid or unpaid) work. “This training identifies your strengths and provides a knowledge assessment. This allows the candidate to work specifically on areas that need to be strengthened,” she said. “They are then paired with mentors to help them develop and dig deep into getting those skills.”
The length and focus of the certification practicum is tailored for each individual and is self-paced, usually about 10 hours a week, and can range from 4 to 20 weeks.
It is broken down into a detailed four-phase practicum that begins by taking the Peer Supporter through an initial assessment of acquired experiences and competencies in the following areas: hope, demeanour, interpersonal relations, communication, self-management and resiliency, self-awareness and confidence, initiative and commitment, flexibility and adaptability, critical thinking, teamwork, and continuous learning and development.
Jones said there can be a concern if the employer won’t help with the cost of training or certification as it may indicate a lack of support for the program overall, which is essential for its success and sustainability.
The majority of organizations do not currently use Peer Supporters as this is a relatively new and evolving strategy to support workplace mental health. You can learn more about the employer's perspective in launching or maintaining a Peer Support Program if you are interested in advocating for this initiative in your workplace.
You can also read more about the History of Peer Support.
Contact Peer Support Canada for information on organizations that provide Peer Support training and for more details about the Peer Supporter certification process.
Note to reader: Where we use capital letters for Peer Support, we are referring to a structured workplace program and/or to trained Peer Supporters. When referring to the general concept of support from someone with a similar experience, peer support is not capitalized.
*Many thanks to the following workplace Peer Support experts for their contributions:
Dr. Ian Arnold, Occupational Health and Safety Consultant
Tom Barnett, Senior Consultant, Canadian Workplace Risk Management
Mary Ann Baynton, Program Director, Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace
Mandi Buckner, Workplace Mental Health Consultant, Mandi J. Buckner Consulting
Stéphane Grenier, Founder and Lead Innovator, Mental Health Innovations
Brian Hansell, Workplace Wellness and Mental Health Advocate, HCG Hansell Consulting Group Inc.
Shaleen Jones, Executive Director, Peer Support Canada
Ann Marie MacDonald, Executive Director/CEO, Mood Disorders Association of Ontario
Don Mahleka, Operations Manager, NGen Youth Centre
Hayley Peek, Peer Supporter and Facilitator, Mental Health and Wellness
Kim Sunderland, Peer Support and Workplace Mental Health Consultant, Mental Health Innovations
Guide outlines the principles of peer support and skills and acquired abilities for peer supporters. Information courtesy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.