All posts in “peer support groups”

Across Boundaries – Peer Support for Racialized Group

Group Name: Across Boundaries – Peer Support for Racialized Group

Description: Across Boundaries is a mental health centre which provides a range of supports and services to people from racialized communities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) who are experiencing severe mental health problems/serious mental illness. The centre believes in a holistic approach to mental health care and operates within an anti-racism/anti-oppression framework. Across Boundaries’ Support Group Services address individual, systemic and ethno specific issues which affect their mental health. The goal is to empower individuals and communities to take control of their health. These groups would include family and peer support groups.

Peer Support Group – A safe space is provided where clients can practice their leadership skills by volunteering to facilitate the discussion. Participants share experiences, give feedback and provide support to each other. **** These programs and services are provided for those who are 16 years and older and identify themselves as a racialized individual. Persons wishing to attend must first be enrolled as a client at Across Boundaries and live in the Greater Toronto Area. There is no fee for this program or any meetings.

Where: 51 Clarkson Avenue | Toronto, ON, M6E 2T5

When: Once becoming a client, an event calendar is provided so you may select which support group you wish to attend.

Contact: 416-787-3007 | |

Peer Support: All You Could Want (And More)

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?

Peer Support Strategies for Surviving College & University

Admission into college, or university, can present opportunities and challenges. Access to education can be a privilege, which can provide a series of life long opportunities and rewards.  However, the years leading up to graduation (and sometimes afterwards) can be filled with a series of emotional and financial stressors. These stressors can be compounded by poor life skills and a lack of appropriate support.

Peer support groups can be used to alleviate some of the stressors, associated with the educational experience. Further, there is a large amount of collective knowledge that exists within the student community. When students connect with their peers, they can form a community of care. Peer support groups enable students to connect with other students, who might be experiencing similar life challenges. Through the groups students are provided with a forum to discuss personal issues, and to share ideas for optimizing their life and educational experience.

Below are three options that students can use to enhance their educational experience:

  1. Students can take advantage of the peer support programs offered through their student association.

Most students are unaware of the many services provided through their student association. The student association provides a variety of programs, including peer support programs. Most student associations provide individual mentoring and group peer support options. These options allow students to connect with other students, experiencing (or who have experienced) similar challenges.

  1. Students can get social by joining a student club.

Facebook is not the only place to make friends. Clubs are a great way to meet and socialize with other students. Students can either choose to join or start their own club. There are a variety of clubs that students can join (i.e. drama, fencing, debate, comedy, walking, etc.).

  1. Students can improve their grades by joining a study group.

In order to graduate students need to pass their courses. Forming a study group with a group of likeminded and committed peers can be very helpful. Study groups allow students to share best practices, which can support effective note taking, and the adoption of healthy habits for staying alert and retaining information.



Using Peer Support to Tell YOUR Story


“Being heard meets a deep-seated human need for connection. The simple yet critically important act of being acknowledged, being listened to – truly being heard – changes everything. It changes the person being listened to and therefore everything connected to that person”. Center for Digital Storytelling


We hear our first stories at home. We then use these stories to form our personal narrative. After this, we go off into the world where we continue to build those narratives. Our personal stories are then further formed based on the narratives around us and about us (i.e. what our family, friends or society might say about our gender, our class, our age, our skin, our size, etc.). So, in the end we are defined by two stories – the story we tell ourselves and the story that other people might tell about us. And, depending on what those stories are, they can either support or damage our belief in ourselves (and thus our ability to respond appropriately to our life and life’s challenges).

One of the wonderful things about peer support groups is the power that they have to positively challenge, shape and transform our stories (the ones we formulate about ourselves and those that others formulate about us). Through a peer support group participants can share and use their individual and collective stories to support each other. By sharing and listening to each other’s stories group participants may experience the following four benefits.

The top four benefits of using a peer support group to tell your story: 

  1.  Members can become empowered through the telling of their stories. For some participants it might be the first time that they get to share their story, or decide how their story is told. It can be very empowering when participants get to share their stories in a safe and supportive group format. They might feel heard, or fully listened to, for the first time.
  2. Members can get meaning from their stories. The group can provide a space for participants to reflect upon and make meaning from their stories (or life experiences).
  3. Members can realize that they are not alone in their stories. When participants hear other people’s stories, it can sometimes validate our own. This might let them know that they are not alone in their experiences (i.e. others share similar stories).
  4. Members can reshape their stories to support their well-being.  If a participant’s personal narrative (or story) is damaging, the group can help them to properly assemble, challenge, and reshape those stories, in a way that better supports their well-being.


Tips for managing loneliness

The Statistics Canada 2011 Census  “counted more one-person households (3,673,305) than couple households with children (3,524,915) for the first time”. This means that more people  are learning to live alone. For most, this will involve luxuriating in the benefits of living alone (i.e. doing whatever you want, whenever and however you want) and also learning to manage some of the challenges – like loneliness.

While it is normal (and sometimes okay) to “periodically” feel lonely (and to be alone ),  there are instances when prolonged feelings of loneliness (from the inability to connect with others in a meaningful way) and isolation (from real or self-imposed conditions) can start to negatively impact our health.

For anyone trying to manage loneliness, here are three (finance friendly) things worth trying:

  1. Learn more about managing loneliness! At the Discovery website  Susan Sherwood Ph.D. offers ten options for better managing and staving off loneliness.
  2. Join or start a social group!  Visit to find a like-minded group to do an activity with. This website (and the groups hosted) caters to people of all ages and persuasions. There is a large pool of groups to choose from (i.e. foodies, travel, movies, language, karaoke, camping, tea, photography, etc.). 
  3. Join or start a peer support group! Visit to find a peer support, or to learn how to start your own. In a peer support group you can meet and speak with people who are managing concerns similar to your own (.i.e. diabetes, depression, loneliness, social anxiety, death/loss, workplace stress, addictions, etc.).

Self-help and the biopsychosocial model

The biopsychosocial model (BPS)   is an approach to healthcare that assumes that a person’s biology (health condition), sociology (living conditions) and psychology (state of mind) contributes to their overall well-being.

While the BPS model has garnered some critics, it is still widely embraced by health service providers (doctors, psychologists, social workers, etc.). It is widely embraced because it provides a very holistic approach to healthcare. And, it is applicable to many health conditions and situations. Also, health service providers, who use this model, are able to develop very comprehensive treatment plans. These treatment options give careful consideration to their client’s unique health conditions, living conditions and state of mind. As such, it is a very empathetic approach to care, which seeks to address the clients overall healthcare needs. This is in stark contrast to the traditional bio-medical healthcare model, which only addresses  the client’s physical needs.

The BPS model is also very user friendly, and can be used by anyone. It can be adopted by the non-professional, as a self-help tool (or self-care action plan) to support their overall healthcare. The diagram in Figure A provides an example of how the BPS model might be used – or adopted – by someone diagnosed with depression.

Figure A:


Being “Real” in a Peer Support Group

At a Self Help Resource Centre  meeting, my late friend Spencer Brennan read the following excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams:

What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Having facilitated peer support groups – with those living with mental health challenges – that excerpt resonated deeply with me. It really brought home for me the importance of creating spaces where people are allowed to reveal their “Real” self, with others who “understand”. I then thought about what model of support might best protect/ support such a space – a space that allowed an individual/s to safely share their “Real” self.

The answer for me was found in a peer support model/philosophy that author Shery Mead refers to as  “intentional peer support”. In the article “Intentional Peer Support: What makes it Unique?” the author notes that we – as facilitators – should do the following:

“…share our stories in ways that help others consider how their beliefs and assumptions have created their reality, understanding, choices, and even their relationships. Although we may have had similar experiences, we listen for how people have learned to tell that particular story and ask questions that create space for reflection and awareness. We explain that we are not there to provide “help,” but rather to contribute to a conversation and a process where we actively challenge each other, and where “recovery” becomes a mutual, dynamic relational process and outcome”. 

If you are facilitating your own group, I encourage you to read more about intentional peer support, to determine whether or not your group might benefit from this approach.

Evaluating Peer Support Groups

Once you’ve joined a group, or if you’re leading a group and have had a couple of meetings, it’s helpful to evaluate your experience. Every group and every individual is unique. No group will offer everything, but it is worthwhile to consider what you like best, and what you would like to change in a group (this evaluation can be an individual and/or a group process). Depending on your conclusions, you might work to make improvements within the group, or look for support elsewhere.

Here’s a simple checklist that each person in a group can use to evaluate the experience:

☐ I feel safe to open up and talk.
☐ I feel supported.
☐ I learn, give, and receive.
☐ I make friends.
☐ I can be a leader too.
☐ I can leave the group or rejoin when I want to.
☐ I feel safe to address feelings of tension or conflict when they arise.
☐ There is discussion of conflict (when it arises).
☐ There is change and laughter.
☐ Members graduate and celebrate.
☐ Membership goes up and down.
☐ It feels right for me.

* And remember: if there are challenges, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should just walk away from the group. Be open about what needs to change. Sometimes it’s a healthy change we need to make in ourselves, and other times it’s a healthy change we need to make in the group that will benefit all of the other members.

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