Peer Support Conference, July 2011
The Value of Peer Support
14 July 2011

An event aimed at both service users and staff considering how peer support is transforming mental health services in the UK, and how it can be put into action across Kent and Medway, was organised by KMPT at Lenham Community Centre. Over 150 people attended what proved to be an extremely successful and fascinating conference, as service user Alex Williams explains…

Peer support is already taking place in our region, even if we don’t always call it by this name. Projects in the voluntary sector, such as Reachout in South West Kent, bring members together to share experiences, while networks of self-help groups include Depression Alliance and MDF. The focus of our conference was on peer support in statutory NHS services, learning from two major mental health trusts. 

The conference was co-chaired by Dr Meena McGill, assistant director of rehabilitation, and Nigel Beswick, a service user. Carolyn Anderson, like Nigel, is a member of the Trust’s Experts by Experience Research Group and introduced peer support with her usual passion, explaining its international movement.

The main speaker was Dr Julie Repper, Director of Recovery from Nottinghamshire Healthcare Trust, which employs the equivalent of six full-time peer support workers (PSWs). Julie explained how the PSWs use their own experiences to help others recover and bring a sense of hope because they are further along in their own journey towards recovery.

The PSWs now have two functions: to prepare inpatients for discharge and reach outpatients who need help to find different community resources. Sharon Gilfoye from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Partnership Trust spoke of their own success in employing 18 full-time equivalent PSWs, many of whom work 16 hours per week while getting working tax credit, so they are left no worse off than when they were on full out of work benefits. The Trust’s five week PSW training programme was developed by Innovations Arizona in the USA. There are many practical issues in setting up such a project and differences in team readiness to accept PSWs. Claudia Price is one of Cambridge and Peterborough’s PSWs and spoke in an inspiring way about her personal and professional development. 

I was involved in planning this conference and feel pleased that it sparked so much enthusiasm in staff, service users and carers. Several months ago I was asked by Nick Dent, PALS officer, to carry out a literature review on peer support. I did this on a voluntary basis, looking at different internet pages, magazines and research papers on peer support. Initially I felt intimidated by the term ‘literature review’ since I hadn’t done one before. I don’t have an academic background, having missed out on university due to severe anorexia.

Our main speaker at the conference, Julie Repper, is renowned for her own research on peer support for the University of Nottinghamshire, but I came to the subject from a different angle. I received support in writing the review from survivor, academic and researcher on service user perspectives Dr Jan Wallcraft, also a close friend who has provided me with amazing peer support ever since we met 10 years ago. Writing the peer support literature review helped me re-evaluate my own attitude to group peer support. While I still give and receive a lot of informal peer support one to one, I have never taken as well to groups. I have recently become a member of an OCD UK group and find it very supportive with excellent facilitation.

I think that peer support is important to KMPT if they want to align themselves with best practice in Recovery. PSWs can break down the ‘them and us’ divide felt in the system. I feel strongly that PSWs shouldn’t replace existing staff, viewed as giving talking therapy or become a cheaper source of labour at a time of economic austerity. Peer support isn’t simply about reductions in the use of statutory services, and shouldn’t be seized upon in this way. PSWs are complementary to the workforce and deserve to be paid for their expertise.

The conference’s Powerpoint presentations are now available online on the service user and carer event page. Alex Williams’s literature review can be found on the same page.