I have served as a Peer Mentor in the mental health field for many years, and I currently am a Lead Peer Mentor at the adult peer mentoring program which I work for. The role of a peer mentor is invaluable for several reasons, but the thing is, not many people know about peer mentors, and for those who do, there is a large misunderstanding of what peer mentors do and what they are capable of.
First and foremost, peer mentors have lived experience with mental health (which means experience with mental health issues either personally or through a family member). This means we have walked in the shoes of the client, and know what it is like to have a mental illness on a deep level – and it is because of this experience that peer mentors can connect with clients in a way that other professionals cannot.
One of the best ways to understand Peer Mentoring is through this analogy about a client who is stuck in a hole (I cannot remember where I heard this, so I apologize for not citing). The clinician will throw a ladder to the client to help them get out, but the peer mentor will go and sit with the client in the hole until the client is ready to leave. The peer mentor meets the client where they are, empathizes with the client, and demonstrates to the client that there is hope for being in recovery – things that other mental health professionals (clinicians and doctors) cannot do in the same way. Peer mentors do this by skillfully sharing their lived experience (personal or family experience with mental health issues) with the client and serving as examples of recovery.
Note: There are other job titles equivalent to Peer Mentors, including: Peer Specialist, Peer Support Specialist, Peer Paraprofessional, Peer Professional, Recovery Partner, and perhaps more. Regardless of the title, the role is essentially the same, and I will just use the term “Peer Mentor.”
Peer mentors have a wide variety of diagnoses, severity of mental health issues, and many different ways they cope with their issues, which does not necessarily mean they are on medication or go to therapy. In addition to having experience, peer mentors are at an advanced stage of recovery. What this means they can manage their mental health issues, whether or not they still experience symptoms, and be able to function in society by volunteering or holding a job. They have a treatment and/or life regimen that allows them to cope successfully with their mental health issues, so that they can serve as examples of recovery.
While there is often a restriction on sharing personal experiences as a clinician and especially as a doctor (some clinicians are more comfortable with self-disclosure, though I couldn’t quantify it), peer mentors are encouraged to skillfully share their experiences, when appropriate and helpful, to show that recovery is possible and that there is hope.
I do want to emphasize that Peer Mentors are not “recovered,” however. At times Peer Mentors, especially those with a chronic diagnosis, may experience heightened symptoms due to a variety of factors. Recovery is not static, and things do happen, but a recovery-oriented, supportive environment will help Peer Mentors get back on their feet.
I will write more about peer mentors this month, and I’d like to directly address how many professionals in this field are not supportive of peer mentors.