Insights from a Peer Practitioner with lived experience in substance use and mental health recovery
Presented by Trevor Burch, Peer Practitioner, Sonder
These stories and insights are drawn from my own lived experience and the experiences of those I have worked with. Whilst I am generally comfortable sharing a lot, I understand that not everyone is. In your own practice, please keep in mind that someone’s willingness to share is not necessarily an indicator of their wellbeing or their ability to engage with services. As individuals accessing support, we are often asked to share our lived experiences repeatedly, which can become tiresome or even traumatic, especially when it involves recounting fine and gory details.
Peer work is focused on building hope, community, and passing knowledge through lived experience in order to expedite the recovery process.
I can personally attest to the transformative power of Peer Practitioners. They have been my biggest allies and companions on my journey toward health and happiness. When I felt isolated and misunderstood, they offered me condolences, advice, and hope that someone had dealt with these issues before and had overcome them.
The community and connection that the Peer Practitioners brought to clinical spaces allowed me to look inward and find the motivation to continue pushing through when things felt hopeless. I leaned into their support and experiences to find hope and encouragement when I could not muster it for myself. If I hoped to make the changes I was seeking, I needed new communities that would be supportive of these changes. This is where Peer Practitioners stepped in. They lit up a difficult path and provided a new community that I could access when it was tempting to return to the life I knew and was comfortable with.
Each person on my journey had unique insights, tips and tricks that allowed me to make it through each day. Thanks to Peer Practitioners, I felt like my journey was something that I was a part of and not something that was happening to me.
How professionalism impacts the work of Peer Practitioners
I started my journey in the peer support space as an unpaid volunteer. I took on this role because I knew the value that Peer Practitioners had provided me in my own journey and knew what a reward it would be to support those that were still struggling.
I worked for free for almost four years, including during the pandemic when paid roles were scarce. When I was asked to provide more support, I took on a live-in role at a rehabilitation facility and worked tirelessly, even providing auxiliary support to the staff in charge on my days off. Although it was a huge amount of work, I did it with the hope of one day being able to work professionally within the field. Unfortunately, my story of unpaid work is not uncommon in the peer support space.
The significant impact that Peer Practitioners have on those seeking to make changes drives many to continue to provide unsupervised and unpaid support. I have seen many Peer Practitioners early in their own journeys be given peer roles and struggle to handle the shift from being supported to providing support. They often lack the necessary training, clear scope, supervision, and administrative support. Some have even had lapses in their mental health or substance use struggles due to the weight of financial issues or encountering unexpected emergency scenarios.
This is why formal integration of Peer Practitioner roles into established health and wellness industries is crucial. It provides the necessary support and structure for Peer Practitioners to continue providing invaluable support to those who need it while also maintaining their own safety and wellbeing.
Now, I have had the privilege of transitioning to a paid Peer Practitioner position for the last year with Sonder’s comorbidity program, AIM, and it has greatly improved the quality of my work and life. Allowing me to be financially stable and have clear boundaries around my work and procedures to follow, as well as training for difficult scenarios and the leadership and support from other staff allows me to provide the best possible care to those accessing my support.
In conclusion, it is essential to include further peer support in the sector. Many people who seek support for substance use are dissuaded by the traditional clinical, professional, and formal application of services. Peer Practitioners help break down these barriers.
AIM is supported by funding from Country SA PHN through the Australian Government’s PHN Program.