Youth Peer Support and the Value of Lived Experience
Welcome to Youth M.O.V.E. New Hampshire! And welcome to our staff blog! My name is Hannah Ossoff, and I am a new Youth Peer Support Specialist. I joined YMNH with very little knowledge of what peer support was - but I’m glad that I joined. The idea of peer support is that people who have dealt with mental health challenges , experienced substance misuse issues, or really any other type of negative life experience, can use what they have learned from overcoming those experiences to help other people who are currently in those situations. It would probably be really difficult to learn how to play football from someone who had never played. Even if that person had studied the game extensively, gone to coaching school (which is real), and knew exactly what they were supposed to be teaching, saying, and showing, I think most of us would agree that it would still be helpful to get advice from someone who had actually played football, and maybe been successful at it. In much the same way, an adolescent who is dealing with any mental health challenge might gain a lot of insight from a fellow young person who has also had a sense of how mental health challenges actually feel, even if the youth being supported already has other providers helping them in their futures planning. In addition, youth peer supporters can inspire hope for other young people that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that we all have the potential for successful life outcomes.
And doesn’t that make sense? Though it may seem obvious to some, the idea that lived experience could be an asset - rather than just a hindrance - was new to me. And as I began going to trainings and meetings, and reading more about peer support, I could see that this was a community where the value of lived experience was being recognized, and utilized. As someone who hadn’t really thought about it before, I was surprised to see how many places do have established peer roles. I did have some more cautious thoughts, though, as well. While I think that things like mental illness or substance abuse should be recognized as part of people’s histories and part of what has shaped them, as well as unique assets that can be useful in helping others, I also wouldn’t want peers to be seen only as people with problems. Choosing to act as a peer mentor or peer supporter shouldn’t mean you are then defined only by your relevant experiences.
In our office recently, we had a discussion somewhat related to this idea. We talked about finding a balance between discovering healthier ways to cope with a mental health challenge and also recognizing that mental illness will always in some sense be a part of you. For instance, it can be difficult when deciding whether to ask for accommodations at work, when you also want it to be known that your mental illness doesn’t frequently inhibit you from being a productive employee. This also goes for physical disabilities, of course. I think this is also a larger discussion that society more generally is struggling with at the moment. How do we accommodate without excluding? How do we celebrate diversity without singling people out? Anyway, all of that is to say that I’m learning more each day about how peer roles have the potential to make both small scale impact on the individual level but also a much greater impact on a societal level.
Have any thoughts on finding this balance? Any comments or questions? Just interested in youth peer support? Let us know!