With over 60 years of combined experience in training and maintaining peer support programs around the world, the founders of Peer Support Central have encountered many skeptics. On a regular basis, we’re asked why peer support specialists and training programs are so important.
After all, the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and professional counseling are well established. If first responders are traumatized by a critical incident encountered on the job, aren’t these the services they should be seeking?
To which we often reply, “Yes and no.”
The critical incident stress management needs of those working as law enforcement professionals, firefighters, and military personnel are different from those working in other high trauma fields. Similarly, the types of trauma that traditional counselors have experience with may be vastly different than the needs presented by first responders. For counseling to work, it’s vital that the practitioner and strategy be customized to the needs of the patient, in this case, a first responder. And who can understand the needs of a first responder better than someone who comes from their community and has lived through the same kind of incident?
Peer Support Works Hand In Hand With Traditional Counseling
Before we discuss some of the reasons that peer support specialists are quickly becoming highly sought after among first responders and the agencies that employ them, we want to make one thing very clear: peer support specialists don’t represent a threat to traditional mental health professionals (though the emergence of peer support specialists has oft been interpreted that way by more traditional institutions).
Rather, we feel that peer support specialists are just one tyne on the multi-pronged tool of mental health resources available to first responders. And when the health and wellbeing of our soldiers, police officers, and firefighters is on the line, can you really have too many options for getting help? We think not. We instruct our peer support specialists to view themselves as a complement to, not a replacement for, traditional therapies. Some first responders will be fine with only the services of a peer support specialist, while others will need both.
Advantages of Peer Support Over Traditional Counseling
If you (or someone in your agency) is worried that untrained peer support specialists are attempting to circumvent true counseling services, consider this statement from the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness:
“Mental Health America (MHA) believes that peer support is an essential element of successful communities that is integral to recovery from mental health and substance abuse conditions. MHA calls on states and communities to incorporate peer support into community-based mental health and substance use treatment services. Peer mental health and substance abuse support services make use of empathy and empowerment to help support and inspire recovery.”
Why Peer Support?
- A Sense Of Gratitude – Peer support specialists are those who have experienced critical incidents first hand. Their gratitude for those who helped them survive and thrive manifests itself as passion for helping others. For this reason, peer support specialists are often more willing to sustain interaction with particularly challenging clients.
- Internalized Stigma – Peer support specialists understand the stigma that many first responders must wrestle with after a critical incident. On one hand, they know they need help, on the other, they’re worried about what their comrades will think of them if they admit weakness.
- Shared Experiences – What first responders want to feel more than anything else is that they’re not alone. While traditional counselors can say this until they’re blue in the face, only peer support specialists can say it and mean it with 100 percent confidence. Peer support specialists have truly “been there” and first responders often find comfort in this small truth.
- Proof Of Hope – Because peer support specialists are among the few who can identify with first responder trauma, they represent hope for their clients. Many first responders find themselves realizing, “If they survived and regained their lives, maybe I can too!”
- Trustworthiness – In addition to providing hope through shared experiences, we’ve found that peer support specialists are able to build relationships of trust much faster than traditional counselors. “People are often more willing to share their real issues, concerns, hopes and dreams with a peer specialist than with non-peer, clinical staff,” explains MHA.
Want to learn more about how peer support specialists can offer an unparalleled level of care for first responders? Contact Peer Support Central now.