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Together scopes potential for peer support in secure settings

Posted on 12, November 2014

A consultation project undertaken by Together to scope the status and potential of peer support in secure settings has published its final report. This is the first time that such a project has been undertaken in secure settings, and the project reached more than 220 service users in secure units, in addition to staff.

The findings were launched today at the second National Service User Conference, Bridging the Gap-Our Pathway to Independence, organised by Priory Secure Services.

The aim of the project, which was commissioned by the Forensic Partnership, was to assess to what extent peer support exists in secure settings, how service users and staff respond to it, what value it has and what the challenges are for rolling it out more widely. Together appointed researcher Clare Shaw to undertake the project. Clare, who has lived experience of mental distress herself, is a writer, teacher and activist with a particular interest in peer support.

Some of the key findings of the year-long project were as follows:

  • A wide variety of peer support already exists in secure settings, but perceptions of peer support are varied, with some focussing on formal schemes such as buddying, and others describing informal support such as emotional support between friends.
  • There are a number of barriers to good peer support within secure settings, including restrictions on relationships, conversations and support. These restrictions vary from service to service.
  • The notion of service user led peer support is a contentious one, with some confusion around what it means and evidence of it being limited by the restrictions described above.
  • Training is needed to raise awareness of peer support in the secure setting, to address fears and concerns, to tackle misconceptions, address diversity and increase inclusivity.
  • Generally speaking, there is evidence of a strong commitment to peer support from both service users and staff

Meanwhile, Together has had a paper published in The Journal of Mental Health Training, Education and Practice, exploring how service user leadership can be reclaimed in the arena of peer support. The paper charts how, with the increasingly popularity of peer support, its practice has gradually shifted away from its service user led origins to become more formalised, particularly within large service providers. This has been compounded by the current economic climate, for example resulting in ‘peer supporters’ being employed in pre-existing clinical posts such as Occupational Therapist, Psychiatric Nurse or Healthcare Assistant.

The consequence of this has been the ‘professionalisation’ of peer support, whereby healthcare workers happen to have lived experience of mental distress, but do not have a primary objective to use this experience to help their peers progress towards recovery. This dilutes the original purpose of peer support and means authentic, service user led peer support is driven to the margins of what is commonly described as peer support.

The paper also sets out how Together’s peer support training programme lets people who experience mental distress develop their understanding, knowledge, confidence and practical skills to support their peers through periods of distress and move on with their lives in ways they find useful. In this way, the identity of a peer supporter is clearly defined and protected, so helping to halt the trend towards such roles having their boundaries and purpose blurred or distorted.

The full paper is published in edition no 9.3 of the Journal of Mental Health Education Training and Practice.

To find out more about Together’s Peer Support Training programme, contact Angela Newton