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Mental health in Nova Scotia: Potential of peer support remains untapped

by Moira Donovan

Susan Roper knows from experience how important support from those who have struggled through mental illness can be.  Peer support has huge potential but remains largely untapped, supporters of the approach believe. Photo contributed.
Susan Roper knows from experience how important support from those who have struggled through mental illness can be. Peer support has huge potential but remains largely untapped, supporters of the approach believe. Photo contributed.

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – Susan Roper speaks slowly, pausing between sentences to collect her thoughts. She begins cheerfully but trails off as the silencing force of self-doubt sets in. She’s slipping into a depressive episode, she explains.

For many people, this would be something to hide. But for Susan Roper, this aspect of herself is an essential part of who she is, both personally and professionally.

Roper is a peer supporter, whose projects include a bipolar peer support group, which has been running for nine years.

As someone who suffers from bipolar herself, Roper knows how important support from those who’ve struggled through mental illness can be. After what she describes as “a lifetime of torment,” Roper had group support suggested to her by a psychiatrist. After all that time, she says, the feeling of connecting with someone who’d lived through a similar experience, “was like coming home. He normalized the experience for me.”

On December 5, the Elizabeth Fry Society supported a human rights complaint against the province, pointing out that a lack of support causes people to be institutionalized when they could be living in the community. The complaint sparked criticism in the province, with sources suggesting that resources – such as one mental health crisis line receiving 1500 calls a month, according to the CBC - are neither adequate nor responsive to demand.

In an overburdened health care system, peer support offers an additional source of support for those struggling with mental illness. Operating under the principle that those who’ve experienced mental illness in the past can provide hope and empowerment to those still in recovery, peer support differs from a clinical model of treatment for mental illness.

Directed not by the clinician but by the individuals and what they hope to accomplish, peer support tries to restore a sense of normalcy to people’s lives. “We don’t deal with what’s wrong with you,” says Roy Muise, a Certified Peer Support Specialist with the Healthy Minds Cooperative, “But we do deal with what’s happened to you.”

Susan Roper echoes this. “It’s not about creating a model of dealing with any of those symptoms associated with being ill,” she says, “It’s just about taking a step in a direction to create something positive in their lives.”

Yet despite a growing body of research that establishes peer support’s role in a host of improvements, ranging from reduced rates of hospitalization and stigma to improved quality of life, as well as a million dollar commitment by the province for peer support, infrastructure for the model still lags behind.

For Roy Muise, the lack of adequate peer support infrastructure is itself a struggle. “It’s probably one of the hardest things that we’re dealing with because we’d like to help.”

The importance of peer support is something that Muise understands well. After struggling with mental illness - an experience that saw Muise in and out of hospital and unable to work - he recovered thanks in part to a connection with others who knew what he was going through. Now, he says, the opportunity to help others in a similar position is “extremely rewarding.”

Muise is among a group of nationally certified funded practitioners, who work one-on-one with those dealing with mental illness. He hopes to see a certified supporter in every part of the province by the Spring.

The funding assigned to the certification program reflects a fledgling commitment by the province to the model, says Muise. In response certified peer supporters, through the Healthy Minds Cooperative, will continue to report to the Department of Health and Wellness. Despite the provincial funding, however, he’s doubtful resources will meet demand for peer support in his lifetime.

Access to opportunities isn’t the only barrier that stops people from seeking out peer support. Education is also an issue. Susan Roper notes that those unfamiliar with peer support often doubt the effectiveness of a model based on an empathetic connection between people with similar experiences.

In her group, she says, there are people who were leery of peer support, “Because they [felt], ‘How can sitting in the same room with other people who have the same illness help?’”

Despite that reluctance, Roper says that people who come to the peer support group, often after years of unhappiness, often ask themselves why they didn’t come sooner.

Peer support takes out some of the real or perceived stigma associated with seeking help for mental illness. “It’s really just having a talk with someone who’s been around the block the same as you have,” says Roper.

Muise describes peer support as mostly “A huge amount of listening,” yet he believes this simple model has huge potential. In the long term, he hopes that peer support will play a role in normalizing the experience of mental illness.

In the meantime, peer support is an essential compliment to the clinical approach, according to Muise. “By us working together, it’s going to make things a lot better.”

 


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