History of peer support

Peer support began as a way to compassionately support those with mental health and addiction issues. Read more to learn about the people who helped peer support become what it is today. 

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Peer support began over a century ago with the hiring of recovered psychiatric patients to assist as hospital staff. In the 1960s and 1970s, as de-institutionalization of patients from psychiatric facilities began, some of those who were released sought support within peer groups. In the 1980s, the peer groups expanded independently or within agencies such as the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. ~ Excerpt from The Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada —Toward a standard for psychological health and safety [PDF]

Peer support grew, in part, as a grassroots backlash against a clinical system that was not serving people with mental health and addiction challenges very well. They felt that they could help themselves and each other with more compassion and more effectively than what they were getting through the formal medical system. There was a growing recognition of the value and effectiveness of peer support provided by organizations helping individuals with conditions such as alcoholism, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart conditions, and diabetes. Shaleen Jones, Executive Director of Peer Support Canada, says that peer support can also be linked to an increase in patient-centered care, patient-oriented research, and the promotion of the concept that those with lived experience have a valuable perspective because of that experience.

More recently there have been advancements in peer support within workplaces that are leveraging this model to support both employees who may be experiencing mental health issues and the overall organization. These developments include structured and supervised programs within workplaces that train and/or certify their peer supporters to adhere to ethical and practical guidelines. These programs are as much for organizational success through reduced absenteeism and disability as they are to provide assistance to help employees access effective resources.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (the Commission) describes the role of peer supporters as providing emotional and social support to others who share a similar experience. The Commission released a report called Making the Case for Peer Support in 2010, and in 2013 published the Guidelines for the Practice and Training of Peer Support |PDF (the Guidelines), which outlines the principles of peer support and skills and acquired abilities for peer supporters. Stéphane Grenier was seconded to the Commission from his position with the Canadian Military and led the initiative that produced the Guidelines as well as national standards of practice for the field of peer support. The standards consist of the knowledge, competencies, experience, and code of conduct requirements needed to effectively provide peer support services, with due care and skill, in a variety of settings.

Grenier’s story is particularly relevant to the evolution of peer support in a workplace setting. He had been struggling for years following his return from deployment in Rwanda, where he’d served from 1994 to 1995, and was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The traditional care model that was available was not enough for him and many of his colleagues. It was conversations with those who had similar experiences that gave him hope and a pathway to his own recovery, emphasizing the importance and value of social support in the workplace.

Grenier went on to establish the charitable organization Peer Support Accreditation and Certification Canada (PSACC), which used the Standards of Practice developed at the Commission to create a credentialing process to help elevate the practice of peer support in Canada as a complement to clinical care. PSACC, which is now known as Peer Support Canada, has developed a robust certification for Peer Supporters and Family Peer Supporters.

Grenier emphasizes that a Peer Supporter is a person who carefully leverages their lived experience to connect, listen, relate to and support someone in a similar situation. “A peer support relationship is founded in mutual support and understanding, and this in itself serves to establish a very powerful means to empower a person who is not well. The notion is that if the Peer Supporter was able to recover, the peer can find hope and leverage this in their own recovery. Hope is a very important factor and in many cases, a carefully selected and trained Peer Supporter is the one and only person capable of providing such hope.”

For workplaces where having a mental health problem is still viewed negatively by many and where stigma is often a source that further exacerbates the condition, a Peer Support program is a tangible means to not only support employees but also address stigma or discrimination related to mental illness head on. Grenier said, “Imagine a workplace that enables employees who have lived experience to support others while at work. The effect of this is simple. It informs every employee that should they experience mental health challenges, they may be able to remain at work, that they are valued, and that it is okay to be human at work.”

He adds, “As workplaces keep asking themselves how to better support employees, reduce LTD and STD, and introduce primary prevention programs in the area of mental health, Peer Support is definitely something that should be looked into.”

Peer Support Canada has recently joined forces with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). “Working under the umbrella of CMHA, Peer Support Canada connects peer supporters and organizations, helping share information and building capacity for peer support”, explains Shaleen Jones, National Associate Director, Peer Support, CMHA.

“A Peer Support program alone cannot solve all the challenges in a workplace, especially those not currently committed to psychological health and safety,” she said. “However, when a Peer Support program is developed in a way that’s consistent with the organization’s culture, mission, clientele and has the support of a champion at the leadership level, it can be transformative.”

More information is available at www.peersupportcanada.ca.

Additional resources

Peer supporters. Learn about reaching out for or becoming a peer supporter in the workplace. Peer supporters draw on their life experiences to help those facing similar challenges.

Peer support programs. Develop a peer support program as part of a psychologically safe workplace. Learn strategies from experts in the field to enhance your success in this area.


Contributors include.articlesCanadian Mental Health AssociationMary Ann BayntonMental Health Commission of CanadaPeer Support Accreditation and Certification CanadaPeer Support CanadaShaleen JonesStéphane Grenier

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