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For many young people with emotional and behavioral difficulties, contact with the mental health system can be a strange and stigmatizing experience. Many TAY programs opt to make their programs more user-friendly by hiring Peer Supporters/Youth Mentors. Peer Supporters bring tremendous value and vibrancy to TAY programs, as well as added risks and responsibilities.
On the other hand, Peer Supporters can also impose additional challenges for TAY programs. It’s important that TAY programs consider the need for additional supports and commitments to the development of these young employees. Some of these considerations include:
- Clarity in supervisory and support functions - Managers must be mindful of the tensions that can arise between trying to be both supervisor, counselor and confidant. For example, empathizing with the ongoing struggles a Peer Supporter may have with being on time cannot overshadow the importance of providing clear feedback and expectations for punctuality. It can be helpful to identify non-supervisorial sources of support and guidance within the agency.
- Clear roles and goals for Peer Supporters - Some TAY agencies may be eager to look more recovery-oriented without clearly thinking through job descriptions and deliverables. In this scenario, other staff may come to regard the Peer Supporters more as “glorified gophers,” mascots and window dressing.
- Transparent career ladder - It can be very difficult for Peer Supporters to see any clear pathway for advancement and salary increases without furthering their educations. It is incumbent upon TAY agencies to urge and invest in the ongoing education and development of Peer Supporters and not exploit a source of cheap labor.
- Co-optation - Unfortunately, the mental health system is susceptible to becoming over-medicalized, overbearing and oppressive. In his blog, “Peer Supporters in Mental Health, Exploitive, Transformative, or Both?”, Larry Davidson comments that Peer Supporters are often asked to “provide the same unhelpful services at a lower cost”. The unique voice and advocacy of young people (experts by experience) can be drowned out and dismissed. Their role of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” is a valuable one for healthy TAY organizational culture.
Peer Supporters can bring both opportunities and obligations; resources and responsibilities to TAY programs.
How can we better support peer workers and supporters to give them more resources and responsibilities?