Peer support: a force for social change?

Peer support: a force for social change?

Author: National Voices

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Ubuntu is a powerful African concept which was fundamental to building post-Apartheid South Africa, and which has at its heart compassion, high regard for human life and shared humanity.

Leymah Roberta Gbowee (winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership of Liberia’s women’s peace movement) describes ubuntu as the belief that “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

Not that dissimilar to peer support, then. At its most basic, peer support is about a mutual relationship in which one person can say to another, “I’ve been there”.

“Peer support is about empathy, not sympathy. It’s about using shared experiences to help each other make sense of challenges, build resilience and find solutions. It relies and thrives on a deep sense of reciprocity.”

Valerie Walsh is a mental health peer supporter who describes the contrast simply and yet so emotively: “Unlike mental health professionals #PeerSupport provides opportunities to give as a well as take. The people I support have given me so much”.

Like ubuntu, peer support is about forging communities based on shared experience. It’s about the healing process of giving and receiving, of coming to know another’s experiences as your own.

Peer support, like ubuntu, can be a powerful force for social change.

In a society in which people living with long term conditions report experiencing social stigma and discrimination, peer support offers the opportunity to build a new way of being which works for the very people whose experiences are delegitimised by dominant societal attitudes.

Recent EU Wise research found that only 50% of people with long term conditions consider their health care professionals as part of their self-management support network.

This statistic may not be surprising given that people living with long term conditions spend around 3-7 hours every year with their health and care professionals, leaving 8757 hours during which they manage their wellbeing in other ways.

This statistic shows that clinical input alone can’t tackle stigma and isolation. Clinical input can’t provide a listening ear when needed most; and it can’t enable people to know that there are others like them, feeling similar emotions and facing comparable challenges.

Thankfully, clinical input is far from the whole story. It’s no accident that peer support has grown up in some of the communities who face the most stigma and discrimination.

Give Stigma the Index Finger! (a community research project around the experiences of people living with HIV) found that 84% of people living with HIV have supported their peers. Similarly, there are a myriad of examples of peer support in mental health, including everything from self-help groups to peer brokerage.

Last week, I listened to a mental health service-user speak powerfully about how the mental health system legitimises the experiences of some, and de-legitimises the views and experiences of others, often – they argued – the most vulnerable and stigmatised.

If ubuntu is powerful enough to underpin peace-building processes, what could it do for our NHS? We know from research that the thing peer support really helps with – more than most other person centred interventions – is the confidence to make and sustain change in one’s life.

Desmond Tutu explains ubuntu simply: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours”. Could ubuntu be a crucial component of the new models of care our health and care system is searching for? And, if so, what can we do to make it happen?

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