If you asked me about Peer Support Groups a few years ago, I would have scoffed at the question and illustrated a scene for you with a bombastic rant: “Peer support is about people sitting on folding chairs in a dimly-lit, cigarette-smoke-filled, wood-paneled, church basement, complaining about their problems.” I would have known that this was a completely unfair caricature of what it was all about, but had anyone suggested I go to a meeting, I still would have been against the idea. Now? I would be the very first person to suggest you go… So what changed? You might have guessed: I actually went to a meeting. And a second. And a third. And continued to do so…
Meetings helped me deal with many fundamental personal problems I had, and still deal with. They gave me a new perspective on the world, and helped me fully appreciate that no matter what I was dealing with, there was someone else out there who understood completely. Basically they did what everyone told me that they would do for me: in a word, they worked.
Two weeks ago, I started volunteering with the Self Help Resource Center. One of the first tasks assigned to me was finding and reading the ever-growing body of research on the subject of Peer-Support. Even though I had already had a positive experience with groups, the research changed my perspective even more.
The first, and arguably most important item that I learned in the past two weeks was the fact that Peer Support groups aren’t just for people with substance abuse, or mental health related issues. Groups exist for anyone from cardiovascular post-op patients, to breast cancer survivors, to people living with diabetes. In fact, in Toronto, according to Mark Freeman, Executive Director of the SHRC, Diabetes-related groups are by far the most attended.
Another interesting fact I came across in my research was that Peer Support groups can be used to significantly lessen the financial burden on the healthcare system. According the research by The University of Calgary, through ‘the promotion and maintenance of healthy behaviors’ as facilitated by the educational aspects of a support group, costs associated with hospital re-admissions and ‘unnecessary emergency room visits’ can be lessened.
Finally, a piece of research that can apply to pretty much anyone, is the lessened number of instances of stress and ‘burnout’ experienced by members of the workforce. According to research conducted by Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, “often the individuals who are at risk for burnout are also likely to underestimate their vulnerability”. Through randomized trial of 151 healthcare professionals who agreed to participate in the experiment, an overall decrease in “exhaustion, disengagement, depression, anxiety and quantitative demands, as well as an increase in vitality” were experienced amongst participants when compared to the control group. After only seven months following the introduction of peer support to the selected participants, a higher proportion of the intervention group (31Æ3%) experienced increased development opportunities at work, compared to the control group (11Æ3%).
Peer Support has much more to offer than you may think: it has invaluable benefits for the individual physically, mentally, financially and professionally; it also has the potential to save the healthcare system loads of money, and prevent unnecessary waste. Ultimately, what I’m trying to get at is this: Peer Support is for anybody, it’s for everybody, and there is a group out there for you. So if you have never attended a group, go out and try it. What do you have to lose?