Peer Support Is Here To Stay at Together

Jess Worner, Together’s Peer Support Practice Manager, spoke at our recent celebration event to mark 15 years of our Service User Involvement Directorate and to launch the next chapter of service user involvement at Together. Below is an edited version of her speech.

“For over five years, I’ve had the privilege of working with so many amazing service users, Peer Supporters, Peer Support Coordinators and other Together staff to embed Together’s model of peer support across our services. I started in 2013 as a Peer Support Coordinator in Hampshire, before joining the Service User Involvement Directorate as Peer Support Practice Manager. So, surprise (!) – I’m going to share some of my thoughts about the success of peer support.

I could stand here and talk numbers for five minutes. I could tell you about how, in just five years, peer support at Together has grown incredibly. That we have gone from having just one Peer Support Coordinator to 18 wonderful Coordinators across our services, who last year alone worked with over 100 fantastic Peer Supporters – who in turn used their lived experience to support over 685 people.

I could also tell you how we’ve developed different ways that peer support can take place in our services, from one-to-one and phone peer support, to peer support groups and workshops. This is all absolutely brilliant, and is down to the hard work of so many people with lived experience and staff working together. I could also give you some impressive statistics about how many people reported positive outcomes after receiving and giving peer support.

But numbers and figures only tell us so much. They don’t really do justice to the immense power of people with shared lived experience supporting each other.

I feel privileged to hear many peoples’ stories; stories which people have been strong and brave enough to draw on and share with each other. There are too many to fully appreciate in this short five minute talk – but they must be honoured as the greatest success of peer support. This includes stories of people who, by either giving or receiving peer support, have been able to achieve their personal ambitions – such as gaining the confidence to do new things, seek new opportunities, volunteer, or move on to employment. Or people who have developed real, lasting friendships after being part of a peer support group – feeling accepted for the first time, by both themselves and others. It also includes people who have found the strength to fight their demons, find ways to manage distress, and are wanting to live again.

A touching example that I have heard recently was from a woman who, through peer support, has just started to like herself enough to paint her nails and wear her hair down in public. There is no hierarchy for these achievements – they are all so deeply personal.

I have my own story too, which over the years I’ve been able to claim back after a lifetime of believing I was broken. I now see my strength not despite my lived experience, but because of it. It is being surrounded by peers in my role that has helped me get to that place, and I’m so thankful for that.

A key reason for peer support being successful leads me to the next thing to celebrate. Peer support has continued to be led by people with lived experience. It hasn’t just been pulled out of thin air and neatly packaged with a Together logo slapped on it.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that peer support isn’t new. From mutual, informal support amongst friends with similar experiences, to the support existing within the solidarity of the survivor movement – it is something that has always been vital, for us to survive and thrive in this world. It is so important that we have held on to this when developing a peer support model in Together – it’s all too easy for it to be co-opted and for ownership to be taken away from people who use mental health services.

I’m proud to say that, through the collective work of so many people with lived experience, peer support in Together continues to be peer-led, and it will continue to be going forward.

The last thing I want to say is how important it is that we continue to support each other. Recently I’ve been privileged to spend time with a group of service users and Peer Supporters, delivering training in West Norfolk. The first question I asked people was, “what does peer support mean to you?”

Now, people didn’t just recite the Together definition of “people with experience of mental distress supporting each other towards greater wellbeing, as people of equal value and on a reciprocal basis, using their own lived experience as a tool for support”. Instead, they first described peer support as “not being alone”. Not being alone – we need to hold on to that.

It’s not a secret that the world can a difficult – sometimes devastating – place to live for many of us, and a lot of people would say that things are getting harder for those of us using mental health services. I am sometimes heartbroken by this. But that’s why peer support is needed now more than ever. Real service user involvement and leadership can make real, lasting change to mental health services and to the wider world. But how do we keep going, when that takes time? When we’re running out of energy, or battling our own demons at the same time? The most important thing I can think of is “not being alone”.

If peer support, in whatever form it takes, is about not being alone, then that means the world – because we’re so much stronger together. So here’s to the future of peer support, to not being alone, to our shared stories, and to all of the wonderful, strong, super-people who make peer support the success that it is.”

Read more about peer support and service user involvement at Together.