From Aeon: “A question that is often posed is whether peer support is comparable to professional mental health services. Are the two approaches effectively the same, substitutes of each other, complementary or completely opposed? An answer can be found in the seminal paper ‘Peer Support: A Theoretical Perspective’ (2001) by Shery Mead, David Hilton and Laurie Curtis, where they define peer support as ‘a system of giving and receiving help founded on key principles of respect, shared responsibility, and mutual agreement of what is helpful.’ According to the authors, one of peer support’s defining features is that it is not based on ‘psychiatric models and diagnostic criteria’. Instead, peer support is about ‘understanding another’s situation empathically through the shared experience of emotional and psychological pain.’
In other words, the peer support model’s defining feature is that it is conceptually and practically separate from formal mental health care, which is conventionally provided by qualified clinical professionals. Peer support departs from the traditional relationship of the professional and the patient. This relationship is inherently mediated by an institutionalised power dynamic that determines what kind of support is provided to a person in distress. In this dynamic, the professional as an expert is presumed to ‘know better’, while the patient is expected to be a ‘passive recipient’ of the professional’s assessment of what is in the ‘best interests’ of the patient. Peer support inverts this very dynamic and replaces it with a relationship of two equally positioned individuals, founded on mutual respect, reciprocity and attunement of their lived experiences.
Peer support draws especially from the power of sharing lived experiences. It offers a relatable and lived exemplar of the unique experience of living and coping with multiple sources of stress in one’s life – something that formal mental health professionals embedded in the expert-patient dyad are often unable to provide therapeutically.
In addition, peer support provides a cathartic space for refuge that transcends the constraints of expert-delivered formal services in favour of a more equitable relationship wherein, through the mutual sharing of one’s pain or life journeys, one can identify and feel connected with the other’s experiences. The relational nature of emotional adversity requires reparative relationships to mend the psychological damage caused by those very fractured relationships (personal and social) in the past and present. Thus, for the person receiving support, a peer may also serve as an inspirational figure; to identify with their journey can be an antidote to the loneliness and isolation one experiences while in distress.”
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