Joanne Forbes, PhD, CPRP Consultant, Author, Founding Board Member Baltic Street Wellness Solutions
I am often asked about peer supervision as peer support professionals take their place alongside other professionals interested in helping people with mental health challenges.
A private reflection
There is so much to be said about peer supervision but a different conversation needs consideration before supervision begins. This reflection can be a private one as non-peer clinicians and peer support specialists/advocates ask themselves about their attitudes towards each other. My research suggested that the most important component of successful peer supervision was the attitude of the non-peer supervisor (Forbes, et al, 2022). I suggest that an equally important component is the attitude of the peer support specialist/advocate. What do we mean by attitude?
What is meant by attitude?
It is often defined as “a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person’s behavior (Oxford Languages, 2024)” And because it is a settled way of thinking and behaving it is not easy to become aware of it.
Reflection on peer support specialist/advocate experiences
What might reflection turn up? If you are a certified peer specialist (CPS), youth peer advocate (YPA), or family peer advocate (FPA), it is possible that you have had interactions with the mental health system and the non-peer professionals that work there that have created a way of thinking about the system and professionals. Perhaps you did not feel listened to. Perhaps a treatment plan was constructed for you or a family member without your input. Perhaps you did not feel understood. If you or a family member were involuntarily forced into treatment, perhaps the trauma of that experience makes it hard for you to trust the mental health system. There are many possibilities that could have added to your attitude towards the mental health system and all those that work within it.
Perhaps as you reflect on your experiences, you think of the professional who so positively impacted your life or your loved ones. Perhaps they were the one who “got you.” Perhaps the suggestions and choices offered you by the treatment team were exactly what you or your family member needed to change the direction. Perhaps they introduced the idea of recovery and a whole new world of possibilities opened in front of you. The question is – how did any or all those experiences shape your attitude towards non-peers? That attitude will accompany you as you find your place on a multi-professional treatment team or work in collaboration with treatment providers.
Reflection on non-peer support specialist/advocate experiences
If you are a non-peer professional, you certainly have had many experiences with those with lived/living experience also known as a mental health diagnosis or with their families. Those experiences have contributed to your attitude. It is an attitude that will color your interactions with the certified peer specialist (CPS), youth peer advocate (YPA) or family peer advocate (FPA) that may join your team. Many who join the helping professions are surprised when the clients with whom they work are either not appreciative of the help offered or downright disregard it. Perhaps the perspective a family member brings is different from your own. Perhaps when people with lived experiences or their families are impacted by their or their loved one’s mental health challenges, they are overcome by anxiety, rude, negative, assaultive, and threatening behaviors. Perhaps the amount of work you are asked to take on exceeds your ability and/or time to provide the service you ideally would like to give. Perhaps other team members use stigmatizing language and it is hard not to confront it because you want to “fit in” or do not want to “rock the boat.” In every case there are repercussions. Perhaps you have experienced that interaction or series of interactions that changed the trajectory of a person’s life. Perhaps your supervisor supports you and helps reframe situations that otherwise would be discouraging. Whatever you have experienced has contributed to the attitude you express when a certified peer support specialist (CPS), youth peer advocate (YPA), or family peer advocate (FPA) joins the team.
Why does it matter?
Reflecting on your attitude will help determine what future experiences will be. Will your interactions be positive, and growth producing? Will your interactions be negative and contribute to disillusionment and early “burn out?”
Many peer support specialists/advocates report that they do not feel valued by other non-peer team members (Forbes, et al., 2022). Some peer support specialists, youth peer advocates or family peer advocates speak openly about the stigmatizing language and behavior they either witness or are subject to themselves. Others talk about feeling isolated or at best misunderstood. Many non-peer professionals report feeling mistrust and hostility from peer support specialists/advocates. Many non-peers worry about their success in changing work habits and decisions that are expected to be different now that a peer support specialist/advocate is on the team. Many wonder whether their advanced education (which they worked so hard to get) is being dismissed. We cannot know all the possible experiences and attitudes you might encounter.
However, we do know that it is important to ask yourself – Do I need a change in my attitude?
If you have been honest with yourself, you might answer yes or no. If your answer is yes, what does it take to accomplish a shift in your attitude?
Clearly step one is to take responsibility and evaluate your present attitude. To start changing your attitude (if you wish) it is important to develop the desire to change. As we all know, change is easier said than done. It has been said that only babies with wet diapers welcome change. Curiosity about yourself and others is an attribute that will be helpful. What is your relationship with change? What has motivated you to change in the past? Give yourself an opportunity to think about how a shift in attitude might benefit you.
The next step is to change your thoughts. How can you reframe that thought that is the basis of the attitude you might want to change? Replacing negative thoughts with strength-based perspectives can help.
The final step is to find other people who demonstrate the attitude you want for yourself. Talk with them. Be curious about how they formed that attitude. Is it their language? Or non-verbal behavior? What experiences did they have that were different from yours?
For peer support specialists, youth peer advocates or family peer advocates, peer values provide a firm foundation for a positive welcoming attitude. Engaging non-peers in mutual learning can help build a bridge to understanding. Recall that non-peer professionals really want what you want-to help others.
How they help may differ from how you help, but the goal is the same.
For non-peer professionals, respect for the gifts peers can bring is a good place to begin. If you do not understand peer work, manage your own anxiety while you observe what they do. Be curious. Support autonomous functioning. Embrace the differences in perspective. Use positive nonjudgemental communication. Remember what it was like when you were the beginner or the new person on the team.
Forbes, J., Pratt, C., & Cronise, R. (2022). Experiences of peer support specialists supervised by nonpeer supervisors. Psychiatric rehabilitation journal, 45(1), 54.
Oxford Languages. (2024). Oxford University Press