Different Roles for Peer Specialists

(November 22, 2021) by HOWARD DIAMOND 

About a month ago, when Kevin Woods looked out his upstairs window one morning, he noticed a man and his teenage granddaughter weeding in the bushes. Of course, it was his landlord, Sam Henderson, and his fifteen year old daughter, Vanessa. Several minutes later, Kevin made his way out the door to talk with them. They discussed tending the garden and what flowers were going to be planted. Sam knows that Kevin suffers with anxiety and often does not leave his five room place for days. As a landlord, Sam wants to keep his property looking green and filled every year with colorful flowers and bushes. 

Farmer hands holding young plant with soil

As a friend, Sam and Vanessa come by and at once weekly so they don’t fall behind in their gardening, which Kevin appreciates. Also, when is needed, Sam supports him in any way possible. Recently, Kevin moved to this particular suburban area and his needs, especially his garden and other things seemed to become a community project. Not only does Sam do the garden, he organized other neighbors (some of whom Kevin has never met). They often ring his bell or knock on the door with canned goods, cooked meals, cookies, muffins and once in a while a full multi-course meal. Neighbors also offer Kevin various forms of assistance. We all live here in this county, Theresa explained as she handed Kevin a fresh batch of brownies. We’re all in this together, another gentleman named Elijah said.

These helpful neighbors were peers; by where and how they lived in the same county neighborhood. This was a form of support I thought had ended decades earlier. This begs an important question:

Is it peer support? 

In my opinion, I believe this is. Although, the example is not true, but it is based on an account from a few years ago. To put this simply, peer support happens when a group of individuals in a particular circumstance reach out to help others in the same or a very similar situation. Also, it is the act of a person or persons reaching out to others to assist them cope with their life challenges. Peer support can be organized through formal classes or it can occur informally. The crucial aspect is that people are able to aid others in the same or similar circumstances through what they have learned from their own personal lives and experiences.

This type of help can and does take many forms. We are seeing it increase often as people around the globe deal with a plethora of challenges and seek out each other for much needed assistance. This is not a new concept. A generation or two ago, neighbors commonly helped neighbors during times of distress. It wasn’t unusual for neighbors to reach out to others in their neighborhoods to offer support. 

Another example of this is when Michael was younger and his friend, Bob was stricken with a serious illness. Although it was several years ago, a steady stream of their neighbors stopped by Bob’s local home. They brought meals, babysat his sisters and sometimes Michael just sat with his parents as Bob often hung between life and death. Of course, Michael attempted to play games with Bob, talk and be with him and offer some encouragement. Once again, this type of support continued through Bob’s eventual recovery. Until his complete recuperation, pies were baked, pets were fed, plus they went to the pharmacy when and if it was necessary. Bob’s family was so grateful that his mother said she would reciprocate. When Bob recovered, his mother was true to her word, as neighbors were driven to the local supermarket, the bank and where they needed to go. 

Years later, Michael went to college and his family moved away.  As for Bob, he also went to University, graduated top ten percent of his class, became a local councilman and then became  the mayor. Michael moved back locally and renewed friendship with Bob. He was a successful psychologist and often campaigned for his pal, Bob.

Over the decades, our society as a whole has changed. In many areas, many individuals grow up in their lives, not even knowing their neighbors. Peer supporters and Peer Specialists are, in several ways, a return to the days when people cared about the welfare of their neighbors and communities by offering what they could to help. As a result, Peer Specialists are more important than ever. Now it is more organized than ever before with support organizations for those with Mental Health, Cancer, Diabetes, Heart Disease,  Addictions, Learning Disabilities, and Epilepsy to name just a few. For Peer Specialists like myself, there is a link between caring that results from a bond of commonality and our experiences. Most recently for me that common relevance was simply living in the same suburban neighborhood, as others.           

Although we are often isolated by our own lifestyles, we remain linked through the similar trials and tribulations of overall triumphant human life. An even broader look of how peer support is delivered by Peer Specialists. Maybe at first, it can be uncomfortable for those who have been called Peer Specialists, not only in terms of mental health, but now has created openings for us to new and intriguing possibilities that can be very exciting and exhilarating. By broadly defining peer support and recognizing its intrinsic value in all contexts can help to further establish Peer Specialists as an expected and welcomed part of the human encounter.   

When it comes to mental health support, the reality is that support rarely involves just a single issue. Substance abuse, poverty, incarceration, housing, employment, physical ailments, and a host of other issues make Peer Specialists and the relationships they build even more relevant in our society. Peer support is too broad and too valuable to relate only to mental health. The values that drive peer support apply to a broader range of human experiences which often embraces this ideal. So this important notion of how peer support evolves welcomes vastly more people and enriches our perspectives about life challenges. In addition, Peer Specialists create greater opportunities for reciprocal sharing of experiences and all our various past lessons learned. 

Instead of attempting to carve out a narrow niche based on what peer support was, or is, an exclusive focus on mental health or addiction support may be an unproductive way to proceed. Instead, let us be inclusive of the larger segments of society that can and should have the abilities to contribute to the value of the human experience. Often we have little or no contact with our neighbors and are immediately suspicious of kind acts by strangers. During this 21st century we relate to others, too often, via computer screens instead of being together and having friendly conversations in our communities. 

However, peer supporters and Peer Specialists have continued to strategize in a way that compensates for changes in how we converse with one another. Currently, partly due to COVID19, Support groups are formed online, e-mails and plenty of social media platforms try to keep people connected. Only the methods have changed. As an overall community, as a country and as a civilization, we must pursue in finding new ways to help and support each other by communicating more effectively our needs and wants, without doing any harm to ourselves or others. Why wait, let us start now. Nice concept, isn’t this?

Both stories are fictionalized, but the accounts are based on facts.

See you in the NewsBlogs.

Howard Diamond is a New York State Certified Peer Specialist  from Long Island 

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