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The Power of Being Heard: Creating Open Educational Resources for Peer-Support Workers in B.C.

We recently completed a project to develop a full training curriculum for peer-support workers in B.C. To ensure we crafted effective resources, the materials were informed and evaluated by peer workers throughout the project to leverage their wisdom, knowledge, and lived- and living experience to create unique training resources. This first-of-its-kind, provincially approved project focused on creating training tools for peer-support workers that amplify their lived expertise and allow them to continue to provide essential care throughout the provincial health care system.

Post by the BCcampus editorial team

BCcampus worked directly with the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions (MMHA) to develop, implement, and evaluate a provincial peer-training curriculum and a standard of practice designed to enhance the quality of the peer-support training throughout the province. The MMHA took a unique approach for this project by actively seeking a methodology that consulted peers with lived and living experience. Read the press release here.

To do this, MMHA and BCcampus committed to working alongside peers with lived and living experience to include their lived expertise directly in the co-creation of the curriculum. The result is a first of its kind, provincially approved curriculum that’s been guided and evaluated by existing peer-support organizations and people with lived experience in the province – from start to finish.

The lived expertise of peer-support workers is a powerful and effective tool employed in a wide range of mental health and substance use (MHSU) services throughout the province that can create bonds of trust with service users that result in fewer hospitalizations and a lessening of potential emotional distress. You can find peer-support workers in K–12 schools, post-secondary institutions, hospitals, correctional facilities, or anywhere else a community is working or learning together. 

As well as a complete online peer-support worker training curriculum, the Peer Connect BC website offers a unique set of training tools developed by peer-driven organizations focused on the wide range of work done by peers in MHSU services, such as the Emergency Department Peer Support Training curriculum and the Parent to Parent Peer Support program that looks at the history and growth of parent peer support for child and youth mental health.

“One of the key objectives for making mental health care and support better for those who use substances is ensuring that when they seek services, ‘every door is the right door,’” explained Jonathan Orr, project manager at BCcampus. “We know that if the door you knock on is opened by someone who shares their lived and living experience, the likelihood you will stay connected to care is greatly increased. The unique relational capacity of those with lived and living experience to create bonds of trust and encourage clients toward hope-inducing strategies is one the most powerful and effective interventions in our health-care system. As peer workers, you are always that ‘right door.’”

There will be a public launch and guided tour of the provincial peer support worker training curriculum on July 16, 2021. Hosted by BCcampus, the event will introduce some of the tools and resources made possible through this project. 

Consent Before Content

From the beginning we recognized the need to include the voices and perspectives of the peer-support workers involved in the training curriculum. 

“A peer who interacts with a peer-support worker will not only feel the empathy and connectedness that comes from similar life experiences, but this interaction also fosters hope.” 

— Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013

“When we’re speaking about peer-support workers, especially within the context of mental health and substance use,” shared Jonathan “we’re talking about someone who comes from a place of lived experience. It could be someone who is or was a substance user, someone living with a mental health diagnosis, someone who is or was a sex worker, a youth, or any subset of similar issues — any of those kinds of lived experiences. The reason the Ministry reached out to them was twofold: first, the training that currently exists is ad hoc. It’s not consistent. There’s training that focuses on one aspect but leaves out another. There’s a big mix of materials, some of them great, but what the Ministry was looking for was a resource that would allow peer-support workers to do the training and be consistent throughout the province. It’s an ambitious goal, but the idea is to ensure someone opening an overdose prevention site in the far north, or in an area with more resources, like Victoria or Vancouver, could use this training to at least have a foundation in what peer support is, what its core values are, and what primary skills are required to do the work.

“The other reason is some of the most powerful, most effective interventions within health care and substance use and mental health — and in particular the overdose crisis — have been led by folks with lived experiences. The most well-known example would be overdose prevention sites. These sites were created when we took the opportunity to say, ‘Look, we know this is your community. How would you do this? Let’s create a space where you can run your own sites and use your knowledge and your own community connections to make a really low-barrier resource that works.’”

“I have my dreads in a lot of projects,” shared Paul Choisil, a member of the working group. “I’m glad that people are taking our input. People have been using the peer-network model for many issues, like the needles and condom distribution during the AIDS crisis. A lot of these methods and concepts were carried over into harm reduction. That’s always been a peer-network type of setup, as opposed to having the Health Authority take it over and try to say, ‘We know better because we’re doctors and clinicians.’ I agree that they have good information, but I believe that if they want to fully understand what’s going on, they need to get inside information from us. Many people with lived experience are saying the same thing. We have different ways of saying it, but we meet in the middle on most of the subjects we try to bring up.” 

Peer-Support Training Curriculum

We have created a 16-module training program to bolster training for peer-support workers. Once participants complete the modules, they are awarded a certificate to recognize the training they’ve achieved. 

“What has been especially important about this project is the aspect of working with people with lived experiences,” shared Mary Burgess, executive director at BCcampus. “We have finally realized the importance of involving the people we want to serve in the ways they want us to serve them. As an organization, we want to take this experience and infuse it into everything we do. That’s the cool thing about collaborative projects: they can be messy and challenging, but they help us discover and define processes to share throughout the sector, creating opportunities for people to teach and learn at their speed. I’m in awe of Corey (Ranger) for starting this project and of Jonathan for bringing it home. They both did an amazing job of making people feel comfortable and included.”

“Throughout this project, I strove to make sure that any way people wanted to give me feedback, we would make it happen,” said Jonathan. “If they needed me to call them, great. If they needed to go for a walk in the park and talk to me about the project and their ideas, let’s do it: email, text, whatever. If you wanted to write notes on the modules, print them out and fax them, sure – let’s do it. If you want to come to one meeting in the entire project, turn your camera off, and say one small thing that changes the whole project – amazing! Because that is how it happened. Every single person involved has contributed to the project, and that was powerful. We know that folks with lived experiences might not have had the best experience on previous projects, so we wanted to ensure their voices were heard and actioned. We had lots of quotes from peers throughout the module, and I think it was critical to have everyone’s input — not just the formalized feedback but the offhand remarks that people had the courage to give of themselves in those meetings that improved the work all around.”

A Self-Learning Experience

“It was cathartic for me to be a part of this project,” shared Millie Schulz, a member of the working group. “Helping people find ways to support someone like me gave me confidence that I lacked from the start. The process honestly helped me figure some things out about myself by learning new ways to examine and share them. Many people going into this had some hesitancy – it’s a big institutional kind of project, so we were all careful to ensure we didn’t get lost in the weeds, worried that we’d say things but not be heard. But that wasn’t the case – in the modules I’ve read, I recognize people’s input: direct quotes from some of the people involved. It makes sense, and it was more than I expected.” 

KC Pearcey works in mental health support and created a tool about supporting voice hearers for use in our mental-health module. “I was heavily involved in this project,” said KC. “I volunteered for every aspect of the project and truly appreciated being able to give back to my community. I was impressed with how much effort and consideration went into the creation of the curriculum, especially around colonialism and land acknowledgements and Indigenous Peoples. I had no expectations about that going into the project. For every meeting, we spent quite a lot of time discussing giving land back and acknowledging Indigenous Peoples in ways that was more meaningful than just regurgitating material that everyone says. I have an Indigenous ancestor, and it really impressed me how much care was taken toward Indigenous Peoples.” 

Peering In

The value of peer support cannot be understated. Without the lived experience and personal connections, help can be viewed as preaching or directing and not coming from a space that’s relatable. When offered by a peer who has been there, done that, then made it further down the road, the guidance is much easier to take. 

“My hope with this training is that it becomes an opportunity for people to become more connected and sensitive to how words and actions impact others,” said Jenn Cusick of Luminate Wellness. “I don’t think we’ve even remotely tapped into the power of peer support. I can see this being something that goes beyond the areas of mental health and substance use, becoming a common practice for organizations, businesses, and the health-care system to hire a peer-support worker to guide and accompany people who are struggling. There’s a potential for real change on so many levels.”

“It’s important for people to recognize that not only has this project been comprised of the professional experience,” said Canadian Mental Health Association Peer Program and Practice Lead Olivia Howard, “but also the lived/learning experience that we talk about so much. At the same time, it’s people’s livelihood, and I think that’s something folks don’t necessarily consider when we think about lived and living experience. We tend to just think, OK, this person is a peer, but everything that has been said and talked about comes from such a vulnerable place within people. It’s really and truly people’s hearts that have made this work. Their personhood. Their vulnerability and compassion. And it’s also really tiring work to pull that all from yourself to make it into some sort of standardized curriculum that we can deliver to a province. It’s been a challenge, but I’m so grateful to everyone in the group for putting their hearts and minds on the line to be able to produce the curriculum.”

Notable Quotes

“Don’t paint everyone with the same brush. If you look at how substance use has influenced music, art, culture, and dance, you’ll see that substances aren’t a crutch; they’re a shock absorber for society.”

 – Paul Choisil

“Through this project, I see the connection. I now know a lot about myself, my neurodivergence, autism, and my mental health. I’ve learned how to support people, and I just see this connection between everyone. Sex work or substance use, they’re very different life experiences, but there’s this unifying factor that really relates to me with autism. There’s this outsider feeling, and you need these people to connect with because you’re a little bit rejected by society. If you’re one in 100 people, then you’re surrounded by only the other 99, then you feel alien, but if you find the other 1 per cent, then it makes you feel like you’re not alone. With peers, you can compare stories and lives, and understand it’s just how it was supposed to be at the time.” 

– Millie Schulz

“As a society we struggle with bearing witness to another person’s pain. It is hard to simply sit next to someone and just be. All humans need to be seen and be listened to, yet there are so many barriers to genuine, transformative connection. The peer-support worker training is about how to see others and overcome their own discomfort with someone who is suffering, without trying to fix or save them.” 

– Jenn Cusick

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