New forensic peer support services at The Royal

For some people with mental health or substance use challenges, knowing there’s someone in their corner and that they’re not alone can aid their recovery. While friends and loved ones may be in a position to offer support, there’s a real benefit to connecting with someone who has walked a similar path. 

In health care circles, this is known as peer support. Peer support for individuals is defined as a supportive relationship between people who have a lived experience in common. There are different types of peer support ranging from casual support between individuals, to programs more deeply embedded into health care settings.

While peer support workers have had a steady presence at The Royal on different units over the years, a new peer support program for clients in the Integrated Forensic Program was introduced this summer at the Ottawa and Brockville campuses with a family peer support program to follow in the fall. 

Forensic peer support services for clients

Peer support specialists are in a unique position to offer support and guidance to staff and clients. While they have specialized training in peer support, what really sets them apart from the clinical team is their lived experience.

“If there’s a good working relationship, a peer support specialist will assist the client with their treatment goals and help them navigate their transition back to the community. The possibilities are endless,” says Jason Rice, an occupational therapist at the Brockville Mental Health Centre (BMHC) who will be working closely with the new peer support specialists. “It's going to be very unique. It's a first year for us in Brockville. To have an extra person who is specifically there to help the client will add to the quality of care for our clients.”

Abbey is one of the two new peer support specialists working with forensic inpatients and outpatients at The Royal's Brockville and Ottawa locations. She brings 10 years of lived expertise to his role and a desire to give back. Peer support was a big part of her own recovery. She remembers what it feels like to talk to someone without being judged, and how it feels to be accepted by a peer.

“I still live with mental health challenges,” says Abbey. “That's just part of my life. It's part of my reality, but meeting with my own peer support worker was a huge step forward in my journey. That part of my recovery inspired me to be there in that way for other people struggling with mental health challenges.”

Abbey describes the peer support relationship as a meeting of equals but also as a sounding board for clients.   

“I'm here for the realities of what's going on today,” she says. “I’m here to be their support.

People could come to me with potential conflicts they are having, questions about the future, worries, their recovery. I’m here to be a listening ear – someone who can treat them as an equal and as someone that understands where they're coming from.” 

Peer support specialists are carving out a distinctive place in the mental health care landscape. 

Melissa Copeland, a social worker in the Forensic Treatment Unit at BMHC, says peer support specialists bring knowledge, experience, and most importantly, a sense of hope to clients in the forensic program.

“As the discharge social worker I often hear that they feel hopeless, especially if they've been here for many years,” she says. “Having a peer support specialist connected with them, especially at the discharge phase, will instill that hope.”

Copeland believes clients feel empowered when there’s an extra person in their corner, especially if it’s someone with a similar experience who supports them in setting their own recovery goals. 

Focus on families

Christine is one of two new forensic program peer support specialists for families at The Royal and knows firsthand how beneficial peer support can be. “I've had people to support me all along,” says Christine. “However, I have recently learned that there's something very valuable about speaking with someone who has similar lived experience.” 

Like Abbey, Christine has undergone extensive and specialized training in forensic program peer support. Adding to that, a lifetime of supporting loved ones with mental health challenges, including twelve years navigating the forensic system, has also made her an expert by experience. 

She supports families as they navigate the forensic system with their loved ones and connects them to community partners and resources. Helping people find ways to ease their stress and avoid burnout is also a key part of her role. “You're only going to be able to help your loved ones if you are in a good place yourself,” says Christine. 

While the forensic peer support program is just getting started in Ottawa and Brockville, the hope is that it will provide a blueprint for other units at The Royal. Behind the scenes, the organization continues to work with community partners to build connections and resources. 

“The Royal is proud to be taking a leadership role in bringing together key stakeholders to raise the profile of peer support as a valuable first step in addressing care needs and as partners in delivering care,” says Esther Millar, vice-president of patient care services, professional practice. “We will collaborate with community partners to help make the case for additional capacity in the community to meet the peer support needs of clients and families.”

In the meantime, Christine and Abbey are excited to have the opportunity to be making a difference in the lives of forensic program clients and families while shining a light on the discipline of peer support itself.  

“I'm looking forward to proving ourselves and showing the world what lived experience is worth,” says Abbey.

Core values of peer support

Hope and recovery – acknowledging the power of hope and the positive impact that comes from a recovery approach 

Self-determination – having faith that each person intrinsically knows which path towards recovery is most suitable for them and their needs, noting that it is the peer’s choice whether to become involved in a peer support relationship

Empathetic and equal relationships – noting that the peer support relationship and all involved can benefit from the reciprocity and better understanding that comes from a similar lived experience

Dignity, respect and social inclusion – acknowledging the intrinsic worth of all individuals, whatever their background, preferences or situation

Integrity, authenticity and trust – noting that confidentiality, reliability and ethical behaviour are honoured in each and every interaction

Health and wellness – acknowledging all aspects of a healthy and full life

Lifelong learning and personal growth – acknowledging the value of learning, changing and developing new perspectives for all individual