Lived experience has come a long way: Peer work in Australia workshop

workshop participants brightened.jpgAbove, from left: Lived experience workers Gwen, Jemima, Alana, Janet, Sage, Warren and Darcy set to work brainstorming about just what makes peer work work.

By Warren Heggarty

Drawing upon your own lived experience of mental health issues in order to walking alongside another person in their recovery journey has been a game changer. 

Peer work has come a long way in the two or three decades since it began to break down barriers in the mental health field. It is a good time to see just how far we have come, where we stand today and where we will take it in the future. 

Trail blazing

Professor Larry Davidson, who is Director, Program for Recovery and Community Health at Yale University School of Medicine, opened an important Peer Workshop held at Figtree Conference Centre, Sydney Olympic Park on 23 March 2018.

Speaking by video link from his office in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, Prof Davidson described peer work and lived experience as ‘a movement that has taken over every continent’ and a movement in which ‘Australia is trail blazing.’ 

Lived experience has proved to be the most transformative aspect of recovery. He said with brutal frankness that it is a method by which you can ‘turn your pain and suffering into constructive change.’

Professor Davidson is an Academic who along with many others has done extensive research which demonstrates the positive outcomes of lived experience in the recovery process. 

However, he told the workshop that knowing the outcomes is not enough. To take peer work further and to make it even more effective, we need now to reflect on exactly how it works. Peer workers are best placed to examine how it is that we achieve those positive outcomes. 

In the United States, there is a growing focus on Peer workers helping people to navigate the medical side of things: the physical health issues that almost inevitably accompany mental health issues. He reiterated the fact that people with serious mental health issues live 20 to 25 years less than the general population. This is a major challenge that peer workers are now grappling with. 

Legends and hope

At the root of peer work, though is hope. Lilly Wu, who has been a peer worker for many years, referred to the early peer workers as ‘Legends.’ A number of them were in the workshop, though it is doubtful they would have felt comfortable with the title ‘legend’! 

People like Janet Meagher AM, Fay Jackson and Peter Schaecken among other pioneers had to introduce a sense of hope into an environment that was often largely hostile. Whenever big changes happen, it is natural for people to resist and affirm the status quo. When you consider that these early peer workers had to face this daunting resistance on top of their own mental health issues, you realise that the term ‘legends’ is quite appropriate. 

One of the Legends, Gwen Scotman-Challenger told the workshop that the main ingredient is ‘sharing hope.’ In peer work, hope works reciprocally. It comes back to you, which may be why peer workers find their jobs so rewarding despite the inevitable stresses and frustrations. 

The workshop, facilitated by Dr Leanne Craze and David Plant is part of a project examining the development of peer work in Australia.  Janet Meagher AM, Dr Gerry Naughtin AM have been working on ‘a synthesis of peer work literature and evidence.’ 

Four experts in peer work policy, research and implementation (Fay Jackson and Tim Fong from Flourish Australia, along with Erandathie Jayakoda and Anthony Stafford from Mind Australia) together with Janet Meagher have sponsored and commissioned a number of authors to contribute papers on the development of peer work, with a view to eventual publication. 

The Workshop itself, it is hoped, will produce a collective guide to where we might take it from here. Produced by peer workers for the benefit of peer workers and the people we walk alongside in the recovery process.  

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