Empathy and understanding in mental health: the role of a peer support worker

This content relates to the following topics:

Emily, a senior peer support worker at Haven, explains the vital role peer support workers play in supporting people through mental health crisis.

When I started at Haven, a crisis support service based in Bradford, it was actually the first paid job I’d had since I was 17, so it was a massive step for me. I’ve struggled with mental health issues since I was young and was a frequent visitor to accident and emergency as a young adult, as well as spending time as an inpatient at Lynfield Mount Hospital. 

I had no access to any kind of peer support workers in Bradford when I was younger and think peer support could have really helped. At the time I asked my psychiatrist if I’d ever get any better. He just looked at me, shook his head and said, ‘No, this is probably the best it’s going to get for you’. To be told that at 18 was devastating and it took away any hope I had for a better future. If I’d been able to meet a peer support worker at the time, I wouldn’t have lost as much hope. It would have helped me see there was some way out of where I was stuck.

When I got the role as a peer support worker in Haven I was so excited but, I guess, absolutely terrified, too. Working in such a supportive team really helped me gain so much confidence and I started to saying yes to opportunities when they arose. This led to me becoming the first senior peer support worker at Haven and gave me the opportunity to really help shape a peer-led service that offers something different for the people we work with.

I often get asked ‘What is peer support?’ There are, of course, lots of different types of peer support in the community, like Alcoholics Anonymous and post-natal support groups, and generally peer support is about building a relationship based on mutuality, reciprocity and shared experience. At Haven and in the other places our peer support workers are now working, we mostly use one-to-one peer support to help people in mental health crisis.

I don’t know of any other roles where you are expected – it's actually a part of the job description – to share on a daily basis what were potentially some of the most distressing parts of your life. And often to share these with complete strangers. But that’s what peer support workers do, we learn to read the situation quickly and accurately, weigh up if self-disclosure is going to be helpful and how to do this safely whilst offering empathy and creating a safe non-judgmental space.

We like to think that the peer support at Haven promotes a trauma-informed way of working. Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’ we learn to ask ‘What happened to you?’ We listen to the story behind the distress; give the person the time needed to articulate what they think has led them into crisis. Or the space to think about it alongside someone who isn’t judging them, who isn’t making notes, who’s been there.

The benefits of peer support in acute settings

From doing the ENRICH programme (which aims to enhance service user's experience of discharge from inpatient to community mental health care) we have seen how peer support on discharge from hospital has been helpful. It has long been acknowledged that discharge from an inpatient psychiatric ward can be a difficult time for many people as people are often going back to the same situation that led to their distress in the first place. Peer support workers can work with the person before discharge and continue this support by helping them prepare, understanding the worries about returning home because the support worker has often been in that situation ourselves. We understand that however chaotic the ward can appear it feels safe, and to be thrown out of a place of safety can feel devastating and extremely unsettling.

I would like to see peer support workers on hospital wards – as are they are in other trusts – and across all mental health services in Bradford. Having peer support workers who can help people but also share their own experiences in these settings inspires hope; hope that things can change and that there is a future that is worth trying to get to. And I believe that we also provide benefits other staff. We are tangible proof that people can move forwards, even after having debilitating mental health problems. This can help staff see that what they say and do in all their different roles can help change people’s lives.

I am biased – I do love peer support. l love the connections it can create, the shared learning it brings and how it changes people’s lives. I’d like to end with a quote from a Haven client who had attended Haven for one-to-one support in crisis, and then moved on to our crisis peer support group.

I started the peer support group. I didn’t want to go to the group because it came after I'd had a really bad day and experience at another service. I woke up thinking that it won’t help me, but I forced myself. I remember walking into the group and thinking I had nothing in common with these people, that I shouldn't be there. 

But I was so wrong, it was such a powerful session, we were such a diverse group and it was the first day I felt hope. I went on Instagram straight after the group and said, ‘this is the day it starts. I’ve found what I need to do, and this is the thing that will help me’. 

I phoned my mum on the way home and told her, it was so powerful. You hear people tell stories about what changed their life and this was it for me. Peer support is it, it changed my life.

This blog was originally published on the Cellar Trust website.


Katy Gooding

Peer Support Worker,
Devon Partnership Trust NHS
Comment date
28 May 2020

I am so grateful for your blog, Emily! I am newly recruited and so far have been unable to get started with my Peer Support role within the Psychology and Psychological Services in Devon, due to Covid-19. However, I am using some of my time to research other areas where PSW movement has been developing well and would really value your input and wisdom of experience in your role!! Please shout me if you see this! :)

Gillian Grant

Comment date
12 May 2019

Your comments are so true but what can be done to improve the situation all resources are overstretched the waiting list in long unless you have money to go privately

Numila Parker

Chapter Leader,
Parents for Children’s Mental Health
Comment date
31 March 2019

PCMH offers peer to peer support for parents whose kids struggle with mental illness. A very valuable program. Our hope is to include a peer2peer support program for the youth themselves within the PCMH program. . Great article. Thank you for sharing

Alun Charles Jones

Professor Psychotherapy,
Chester University
Comment date
31 March 2019

I have professional experience of peer support and of course it can be effective. However, an enduring problem regarding the treatment and care of people in need of services for mental ill-health is the environment from which services operate alongside the ongoing training and support for professionals.

My experience of working in mental health settings is that mental health units are generally poorly planned and professionals are themselves struggling with inadequate resources and poor self-esteem. There remains a stigma concerning mental ill-health and this touches all involved with receiving and providing services.

Add your comment