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Case study: Working as a peer supporter

Posted: 23/06/21

Joanne Cowen works as a peer supporter in the Sunderland South Community Treatment Team, using her own experiences of mental health to help others on their recovery journey.

Having struggled with her mental health since the age of five, Joanne wanted to be able to give something back.

She qualified as a primary school teacher in 1995, a job she did for 15 years before going on long-term sick. A mental health nurse recommended Joanne go to Newcastle Recovery College and it was from there that her journey as a peer supporter began.

The Recovery College provides a safe space where people can connect, gain knowledge and develop skills. It promotes recovery through peer-led education and activities with collaboration between mental health service providers and organisations. They offer a range of courses from drama and fishing to British Sign Language and emotional resilience.

Joanne attended a number of courses and it wasn’t long before she was running her own.

In fact, she still runs courses at the Recovery College, and particularly enjoys her involvement in the Recovery College Choir. Joanne’s passion for music extends to her work in the Community Team where she undertook a research project as part of an apprenticeship, looking at the impact of singing on mental wellbeing.

When she saw the opportunity for a peer supporter role, she jumped at the chance.

“I didn’t know peer supporters existed and I think I would have really benefitted from them having one myself,” she explained.

“I had a really positive experience with mental health services and wanted to be able to give something back.”

Peer supporters draw on their own lived experience to share insight, understanding and empathy to help others. A peer supporter’s job is to challenge the stigma around mental health and promote hope and recovery. They act as a voice for service users, helping staff in their understanding and awareness of what it means to be a service user.

Joanne admits it was difficult when she first started in the role. “You have to learn how much you’re comfortable with sharing, it’s very personal. I share self-soothe activities and my experience of being discharged from services.”

A typical day for Joanne begins with going into the office and checking her diary. There may be a morning meeting updating the team on general business, or a pathway meeting where everyone has the opportunity to discuss complex cases.

She then visits patients on her case load, either doing home visits, meeting patients at team base or engaging them in community activities.

Having always worked in community services, Joanne recently took a secondment opportunity on an inpatient ward. She has since returned to the community treatment team.

“It was great working with people on the ward but I found the office environment very different,” she explains.

“Working in community, I have time to plan what I’m going to do whereas inpatient services are more reactive. I did find it very useful seeing patients at a different stage of their recovery and I now know what it’s like for those on my case load who have been an inpatient.”

Joanne said working within the community allows her to engage with service users at different stages in their recovery journey. “One day I might be working with someone on their recovery plan, a personal tool a service user sets to guide them through difficult times. With another I might be sharing coping strategies, or I could be supporting them in crisis and liaising with the crisis team.”

For Joanne, the best part of the job is being able to connect with people. “No two days are the same, but every single day is both rewarding and challenging.”