Peer support – A framework for a good life

Paula Jessop

Paula Jessop presents at a recent Hamilton Altogether Autism network meeting

Paula Jessop has been interested in mental health’s peer support concept for some years.

           Hear Paula Jessop speak about the potential of peer support at the Altogether Autism Conference

Studying the National Certificate in Peer Support will enable her to work with people in a slightly different way – one that recognises her own life experience and places greater emphasis on assisting people to make decisions and set their own goals for a good life.

The peer support model values the experience of mental health workers who also live with a mental health condition themselves. The natural consequence of this approach is a greater understanding and recognition of the experiences of the person they support.

Paula observes peer support is a strong movement in mental health that differs from traditional support models where medical professionals usually take the lead.

“Peer support is about walking alongside somebody, so it’s a slight shift in power dynamics.

“It’s a philosophy that acknowledges people have their own expert knowledge of what they experience, rather than the old style dynamic of working with people where the clinician is the expert.”

This philosophy allows Paula to draw on her own experiences living with bipolar to support others with mental health conditions.

Lived experience of mental illness is just one requirement of a peer support person. Good listening skills and an ability to show empathy for what others are experiencing is also vital.

In addition, the National Certificate in Peer Support provides guidance on how to help others to set goals and work towards achieving them.

“You’re trained in things like understanding models of change so you can assist people to make changes in their lives,” Paula says.

While there may be some challenges for people with autism working in the mental health sector, Paula doesn’t believe it presents any additional barriers.

“I don’t know if it’s any more challenging than an autistic person in any workplace.”

In fact, Paula credits Asperger’s for her ability to be more sensitive to changes in behaviour.

“I tend to intellectually analyse people. I don’t assume that I understand people, so I put a bit more effort into trying to understand their different patterns of behaviour, which then becomes quite useful. If I’m working with someone with bipolar, I get quite good at noticing warning signs before they get manic or depressed.”

Paula also believes Asperger’s¹ gives her greater insight into what the people she supports are experiencing.

“Having lived experience of a condition that isn’t going to go away does tend to give me a higher level of empathy or understanding for the people that I work with. I know what it’s like to live with a condition that interferes in your life and makes it difficult to gain employment and things like that.”

The National Certificate will provide Paula with the skills required to provide peer support in the mental health sector, but she sees potential for the model to be used more broadly.

“Peer support is currently focused on mental health, but the concept could easily apply to autism as well.”

Although Paula hasn’t formally received support from a peer, she knows how important it can be for people with autism to connect with other people on the spectrum.

“One of the things I found really helpful to be able to function well myself while having autism was reading autobiographies from other people with autism. I found that more useful than anything I’d ever done with a counsellor or psychologist,” says Paula.

“I also found going into Facebook groups with autistic people really helpful. People would have conversations about their experience and then there’d be an exchange of ideas. So it was those things that made me think that peer support would be good for people with autism.”

One of the key aspects of the mental health peer support model that makes it suitable for people with autism, is that it’s not preoccupied with wellness.

“Peer support starts with the premise that a person doesn’t have to recover from their condition to have a good life.

“A person can actively experience symptoms of whatever condition they have and potentially be able to have a good life.”

This differs from the traditional medical model that clinicians use, which focuses on weaknesses of behaviour, which then becomes quite useful.

“For peer support, diagnosis is irrelevant. You’re not thinking about a person’s diagnosis or their label or what’s wrong with them. You’re working with an individual and getting to know them and the strengths they have that might help them do well in life.”

As Paula points out, this strength-based model can be used with anybody, with any condition, whether it’s mental illness, disability or autism. And having support from someone who has insight into their lived experience has additional benefits.

“One of the benefits of peer support for people with autism is having someone who inherently understands them; who knows how to interact with them and communicate with them; and who has some understanding of the types of problems they may experience due to their autism or due to being an autistic person in society.”

This insight means a peer can better help someone identify their strengths and then support them to set realistic goals and achieve them. In practical terms, says Paula, you could apply the framework to assist a young person to move out of home, or assist people in study or work.

“Peer support is about empowering people to be good self- advocates – to advocate for themselves in the world some way,” says Paula. “And it’s about working with people from the basis of assuming competence; that they can do anything they want to do if they’re given the right supports. They’re empowered to find their own way through all sorts of challenges – that’s what I like.”

About Paula Jessop:

Paula Jessop is a member of the Altogether Autism consumer reference group and frequently brings a lived experience perspective to Altogether Autism network meetings. She is currently working toward the National Certificate in Peer Support (mental health) in her role as a support worker for Emerge Aotearoa, an organisation that provides community-based mental health services.

In this article, we have used the term Asperger’s to refer to Paula’s autism as it is her term of preference.

This article was first published in Altogether Autism Journal Issue 3, September 2016 read the latest edition.