By LINDA UNDERWOOD & DAVID NORGET
Salt Spring came together last month to explore the concept of peer support and examine how it could help support existing mental health services, fill service gaps and connect our community.
The first in a series of summits planned by the Salt Spring Health Advancement Network’s Mental Wellness Initiative (MWI) took place via Zoom on Jan. 11 from 2 to 5 p.m. and Jan. 18 from 3 to 6 p.m. with over 55 local service providers, people who access services, people who are marginalized and interested community members connecting. Bringing these diverse voices together is one of the goals of the Summit Project, whose mission is to help create a community in which everyone belongs and where each person’s needs are recognized as unique. As such, a critical part of the planned summits involves the meaningful inclusion of people with lived experience and marginalized voices. The initiative itself is not focused on providing mental wellness services but rather on acting as a bridge to the community doing so.
Peer support is essentially the support provided between people who share a common overlap of life experience. This could be a mental health challenge or illness, or a marginalized experience. The Peer Support Summit highlighted Jake Flood, from Greater Victoria’s Umbrella Society, talking about their successful peer support program. Participants were invited to consider how peer support might serve the Salt Spring community, what we would need to consider to make peer support a reality and how peer support might look in a small community. Participants were also invited to reflect on what else would need to be considered in our community.
What came out of these conversations is not surprising. Participants were asked who would benefit from peer support. The answer: Everyone! Participants spoke to the importance of mutual support, partnerships between community organizations and members, and ensuring key oversight and tracking are built into peer support programs. Building off successful peer support models and playing to Salt Spring strengths, i.e. our natural environment/connection to the land, were also mentioned.
A peer support program would require training, including skills and boundaries like confidentiality. Consistent themes emerged around listening to marginalized community members, the importance of safe(r) spaces, the need to understand the current picture of services (asset mapping), education and communication, and efforts to reduce stigma. Next step actions were also brought to the discussion.
The next MWI Summit, on the topic of lay counselling, will occur Tuesday, Feb. 8 from 2 to 5 p.m. and Feb. 15 from 3 to 6 p.m. via Zoom. Lay counselling, where lay individuals receive training and are supervised by a professional, is a form of support provided in a formal one-on-one office environment. It is a model where finances are not a barrier to access.
Both lay counselling and peer support build on the effective efforts already occurring through the work of professional providers and community organizations and make effective use of skilled community members who, for example, have been certified in mental health first aid. Both contribute to social justice by involving peers that understand the issues of marginalized people and make support more available. Perhaps most importantly, peer support and lay counselling help reduce stigma and the “us versus them” mentality and encourage community resilience; the more the community gets involved the deeper the positive momentum of mental wellness for the whole community.
The summits are free! Any interested individual can register by contacting William MacPherson at email@example.com or Charleen Rolston at Charleen.Rolston@islandhealth.ca. In March the MWI is planning a third summit series (March 8 and March 15) that will focus on community follow-up actions to the January and February summits.
Salt Spring Health Advancement Network and the Mental Wellness Initiative give thanks to grants from Island Health’s Community Wellness, the Salt Spring Island Foundation and the CRD’s Grants-in-Aid funds.