The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) broadly defines peer support as “any organised support provided by and for people with mental health problems” (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2009, p. 1).
Peer support initiatives include “programs, networks, agencies or services that provide peer support. They can be:
Funded OR unfunded;
Use volunteers, paid staff OR both;
Operate out of psychiatric consumer/survivor run organizations OR other agencies;
Delivered by a group of peers OR by an individual peer in a team of professionals;
A primary activity of the initiative OR a secondary benefit, such as in a consumer/survivor businesses” (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2009, p. 1); or
“Part of an indigenous healing ritual” (O’Hagan, Cyr, McKee & Priest, 2010, p. 42).
While mainstream mental health treatments (e.g., psychotherapy, pharmaceutical therapy) and interventions (e.g., motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioural therapy) are central to managing a person’s mental illness, so too are the important influences of personal resourcefulness, personal support and self-belief in their recovery (O’Hagan, Cyr, McKee & Priest, 2010).
Peer support can help to minimize the power imbalance that exists between health-care providers and health-care recipients, and reduce social isolation and shame experienced by those with mental illness (Elliott, n.d.). In recognition of this, there is a movement underway to develop formalized peer support workers in Canada as a credible adjunct to the treatment of and recovery from mental illness (O’Hagan et al., 2010).
The Operational Stress Injury Social Support project, developed by Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence, helps Canadian soldiers to recover from stress injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder (Grenier, 2002). Encouraged by the success of this initiative, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, in partnership with others, has launched a new peer support project that “aims to develop guidelines in support of peer support that include curricula for peer support workers that lead to formal qualification.” (O’Hagan, Cyr, McKee & Priest, 2010).
This formalization of peer support, in addition to informal peer support relationships, will bring increased credibility to a promising practice with an emerging evidence base that demonstrates positive outcomes in the following areas:
“reductions in hospitalizations
reductions in symptom distress
improvements in social support
improvements in quality of life” (Canadian Mental Health Association, et al., 2005, p. 6).
The continued support, expertise and leadership of nurses working in mental health settings is crucial to advancing peer support as an important part of the journey toward recovery.
Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario; Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; Ontario Federation of Community Mental Health and Addiction Programs; & Ontario Peer Development Initiative. (2005). Consumer/Survivor Initiatives: Impact, outcomes & effectiveness . Toronto: Authors. Retrieved from http://www.ontario.cmha.ca/admin_ver2/maps/csi200504.pdf
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