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Martha Barbone

Certified Peer Specialist (CPS)

Key Ingredients in Response to the Pandemic: Peer Support Values

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A year has passed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve heard it said that it’s a year like none other, marked by overwhelming anxiety and fear for many. But, when I hear this, I think, “I have been here before,” and I think I am doing quite well despite – or maybe because of that knowledge.

Many years ago, when I was relating how hopeless I felt during a difficult time, a wise friend asked me, “Have you felt like this before?” “What did you do to feel better? Because you are still here.” As I have moved along my life journey, negative feelings have come up many times and I’ve had many different responses. Some have not been very helpful. Some have been very helpful in the moment, but not in the long term. And some have gotten me to where I am today, feeling better prepared than many to deal with fear and uncertainty. This is because of resilience and resourcefulness.

If resilience is a learned gift, it’s a gift best shared. The need and desire for the support that can only come from those who, like me and many others, have “been there, done that” has been evident during this pandemic. The role of peer specialists is grounded in the values of person-centered support. The value of connection and peer support through shared lived experience is being more widely applied in behavioral health care and is a salient addition to all health care. Many of us involved in peer support have had a crash course in how to navigate a virtual environment, embracing Zoom and learning about telehealth and digital peer support. In many communities, peer specialists have done outreach and provided connection to those in need, often expanding the scope of our services to those who would not have traditionally received support from us.

A study was recently conducted by Wallis E. Adams, MPH, Ph.D. Post-doctoral Fellow, and E. Sally Rogers, Sc.D., from the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, called “The Impact of COVID-19 on Peer Support Specialists.” Out of 1,280 peer specialists, 72.5% reported being engaged in new job tasks due to COVID-19, including non-peer related tasks specific to the pandemic, and 44.8% reported that the number of individuals they provided peer support had increased.

Peer specialists are uniquely positioned to respond to the greater needs of the community during the pandemic including increased isolation, mental health symptoms, substance use issues, food shortages, housing instability, possibility of job loss and interpersonal/family violence. They also bridge important gaps in the shared decision-making and informed consent process as they facilitate clear communication by using plain, everyday language and are sensitive to the learning needs and styles of those they support. Those with lived experience have been instrumental in the ongoing development of self-management and self-directed recovery tools and the use of digital peer support.

People with lived experience can, and must, be a part of determining the “new normal.” We have achieved things we were told were impossible, such as working remotely. We have seen a call to providers to increase access to outpatient and alternative treatment to reduce the need for crisis, emergency department visits, residential and inpatient services. We need to be sure this continues!

We see the words “peer support” used in health care now more than ever. We are poised to lead the way. This is when our full lived experience, not just those experiences attributed to a diagnosis, can shine and we will emerge as leaders demonstrating the benefits of peer support in its broadest sense.

Martha Barbone has worked as a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) in Mass., since 2012 in many roles including on an inpatient unit, for a peer run organization, and as director of CPS training. Martha has been a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Ambassador for the last year, and during this time she has provided insight as a Peer Specialist to improve patient outcomes and related research.

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