As we approach the end of a remarkable year at GAMIAN-Europe, it’s a fitting time to reflect on the Peer Support Project and the virtual workshops that have illuminated our journey. These workshops have been instrumental in fostering connections, sharing knowledge, and reinforcing our commitment to mental health advocacy.
Let’s have a glimpse into our series of workshops this year…
Integrating peer support into mental health services – A way forward
Our first workshop of the year served as an introduction to the peer support work: what is considered peer support, how it is linked to mental health, and its impact on people living with mental health conditions. This session highlighted the importance of integrating peer support into health and social services, not solely as a “quick fix” solution but rather as a policy imperative. The participants discussed the challenges that peer support workers face, ranging from the lack of support and funding to poor cooperation with other health professionals. For example, in the Czech Republic, mental health services have changed over the past decade; today there are around 200 peer support workers, yet they are considered always as equal to other professionals. In countries like Romania, peer support is relatively new and, where available, can be tokenistic. EU-funded peer support projects are often short-lived and tend to become inactive once completed. Therefore, a holistic approach to mental health policy is the key – peer support workers champion the inclusion of such tools and practices in hospitals or community services since it is argued to enhance patient recovery, self-esteem, and empowerment and helps to reduce and manage clinician caseloads.
The moderator as well as the participants reiterated the critical significance of trust and rapport for peer support practices; it is vital to create a safe and mutually beneficial space that allows people to come in as their most authentic self and learn through similar experiences. Peer support workers should respect the values and the framework provided but they should not neglect to demonstrate empathy.
Peer support, training, and supervision: Essential elements
Having established that peer support should be an integral part of mental health services, we delved into the components of successful peer support: training and supervision. Participants, moderated by Sonia Thompson, Co-Director of the Survivor Researcher Network and With-You Associate, pinpointed that training can be offered not only by professionals but also by people with lived experiences. Experts by experience can guide people wishing to offer peer support services while feeling empowered since they “own their narrative” and are considered as credible sources of contribution to mental health treatment. The supervision of peer support should be conducted within a concrete quality framework that enables co-reflection and a dynamic exchange of feedback. In peer support practices, it is vital to create a safe and mutually beneficial space that allows people to come in as their most authentic selves and learn through similar experiences, by demonstrating empathy.
Digital Peer Support Interventions and Innovations
In the third workshop, we explored digital interventions (DI) in peer support, focusing on their current use, benefits, challenges, and prospects. Participants from various European countries shared their experiences with different DIs, highlighting a trend towards ‘hybrid’ approaches combining digital and face-to-face elements. Virtual meetings and trainings, mental health apps, websites, and social media platforms have been identified as such interventions. The pandemic significantly boosted the use of virtual meetings, with some organizations continuing this practice post-lockdown due to user preference.
Benefits of DIs included serving as an icebreaker for initial meetings, creating wider networks, and enhancing inclusivity. The integration of AI and machine learning, mainly for the automatization of interpretation and translation, is very promising for the development of tools that provide peer support services. However, the state of art in Europe is not homogenous; challenges like digital poverty, varying digital literacy, internet connectivity issues, and concerns over privacy and data security arise as shortcoming to the integration of innovative tools in peer support. Additionally, participants highlighted the overwhelming nature of social media and the need for occasional disengagement from DIs.
Looking to the future, there’s a recognition that DIs need to evolve in understanding mental health conditions more deeply. The role of social media in accommodating mental diversity and the limitations of tools like ChatGPT in providing current updates on peer support were also mentioned. While much peer support work can be conducted online, the importance of retaining face-to-face interactions was emphasized, suggesting a balanced approach between digital and traditional methods.
As we bid farewell to a year of growth and learning, we’re thrilled to announce that more workshops are on the horizon for 2024. These upcoming sessions will continue to build upon the foundations laid this year, introducing new topics, innovative practices, and opportunities for deeper engagement in the field of mental health support.
Our commitment to enhancing the effectiveness and reach of peer support remains steadfast. We look forward to welcoming both new and familiar faces in our 2024 workshops, as we collectively strive to make a positive impact in the world of mental health advocacy.
Together, let’s make 2024 a year of continued empowerment and progress in the realm of peer support.