Monday, April 6, 2020

Comments by PeerAssistant

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  • I had a similar experience albeit in the late 1970’s and in a different context: the education system. We were pioneering peer support for teens in high schools. Our premise was based on observations and research that teens who are experiencing some worry, frustration, trouble, or difficulty often turn to their peers for help.

    When we interviewed those teens who were sought after by others for help, we found that they typically didn’t know what to do and felt helpless to assist their friends. They didn’t realize that just being there and listening was a form of help.

    Our goal was to recruit these natural helpers and build on their natural skills to reinforce them and at the same time increase their repertoire of options (including learning about referral sources). Lo and behold teens were very eager to get involved in this new type of helping, which at the time we (rightly or wrongly) called “peer counselling.”

    While we thought this might be a great way to supplement the services of professionals by increasing referrals, prevention, and best use of professional time, we weren’t prepared for the onslaught of resistance from the professionals as well as the teachers in the schools.

    Their main concerns were around, “kids can’t do this kind of thing; they have neither the skills or maturity to help their friends.” Parents on the other hand took to it right away because they were convinced that such peer interaction would increase the chances of their son or daughter being with people who could offer Positive Peer Support as compared to the dreaded negative peer pressure.

    At the same time we heard from some social psychologists and sociologists who recognized that there is a natural helping network and that the majority of help provided in the country really comes from peers and family (and clergy). While they recognized this type of natural help, they expressed worry that the training we would provide students (to become peer counsellors) would deplete or interfere their repertoire of natural helping skills, thus reducing what had previously been a valuable source of help for the peer network.

    This turned out to be an important factor in subsequent peer programs that started to develop. Although they were often based on our natural helping skills model, they often added in other elements that did change dramatically the way students who were natural helpers would respond. We had no control over this, and such programs reported that the interactions they had hoped would happen didn’t materialize. Part of the problem was that the students were being turned into robots who used canned scripts or phrases right out of the professional counselling textbooks.

    In addition, some school-based peer programs made a big deal about making sure that student peer counsellors had “office time,” where they would sit in an office with a sign out in front that said “Peer Counselling is Available.” This was a mistake and an example of a misunderstanding of how help in a peer network is delivered and sought. After awhile many of these programs were abandoned because so few students “used” the office hour service.

    The upshot of this is that many professionals who at least thought these programs were good ideas, messed up their implementation or co-opted their purpose and context to conform more to their own sense of professionalism. We called this the “professionalization” of peer work.

    This problem still exists today, and it has emerged in the peer recovery movement. Professionals need to learn how best use peer models. Not because of the possible cost savings (that’s not a valid or even accurate portrayal), but because of the way peers can reach into a community and provide help that’s needed to their peers. Peer models are not an add-on or bonus, they are a necessity.

    As a final note, most of the initial objections are problems in implementing school-based peer programs were overcome, reduced, or eliminated. This primarily came about by finding common ground and purpose, educating professionals, and providing a way for professionals and peers to work together for the benefit of both. This approach was so successful that it’s unlikely to find a school, college, or university that doesn’t have some type of peer-led program to assist students.