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“Peer work in Australia: A New Future for Mental Health” A reflection by Erin Cargill

“Peer work in Australia: A New Future for Mental Health” provides readers with an in-depth insight into being a peer worker and the importance of their role. The contribution by several peer workers about their experiences means the book connects strongly with its readers and will undoubtedly inspire people towards peer work.

Reading this book taught me the importance of feeling connected and belonging, as many people suffering with mental health difficulties feel isolated and alone. One peer worker, Darren Jiggins (Section 5, p.175), particularly demonstrated the importance of connection as he wrote about the challenges he faced while battling to keep thoughts a secret. Many people with mental illness would relate with Darren’s belief that he thought he was going “mad” and that if he ever voiced his concerns he would be perceived by others as “different” and would end up being institutionalised for thinking that way.

For Darren this meant he spent several years trying to hide away from his family and friends and pretend that everything was ok. It wasn’t until Darren was later hospitalised that he learnt the name of his condition – obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – and was introduced to others in the same boat. Just this simple act of meeting and talking to others like himself was life changing for Darren. He was able to begin to accept his life and go on to support others going through similar experiences.

Darren’s work and his message inspired me. A quote taken from the TV series West Wing highlighted the importance of speaking to your peers and how sometimes the thing you most need has been sitting right in front of you the whole time: “This guy walks down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep. He can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up “Hey you! Can you help me out? The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on… Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down the hole and moves on… then a friend walks by “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” and the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says “are you stupid? Now we’re both down here!” and the friend says, “yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out” (Sorkin & wells, 2000) (Page 176).

Coming into this book with fresh eyes, having known so little about a peer workers role, I found the accounts of Darren and the other peer workers moving. Their work isn’t necessarily about ‘fixing’ someone, it’s more about supporting and helping them to live their best lives. Darren highlighted this when he discussed life changing moments while working in peer groups. One particular session demonstrated how effective peer support can be when helping others to find the light at the end of the tunnel. “I vividly remember one woman’s lament that because of her obsessive compulsive disorder the family could never go on holidays for fear of contamination in the shower…After 30 seconds a group member had an idea and said “how about you buy a few pairs of thongs and throw them out each time you have a shower?”…The family later returned and told us of the wonderful holiday they had, due to a non-clinical, practical solution found by a peer…” (Page 183).

Reading this book will enhance a person’s knowledge on peer work as well as inspire them to spread the message and support others in their community. Peer workers’ strength and passion for their jobs really shines throughout the book. With everything from training and policies to personal stories and challenges the sector faces, it provides readers with a holistic view on nearly everything involved in being a peer worker.

I would recommend this work to those working within the mental health sector and individuals considering a career in mental health. Peer workers play such an important role in the mental health sector and we need more books like this to get the message out.

  1. Meagher, J., Stratford, A., Jackson, F., Jayakody, E. &Fong, T. (Eds.). (2018). Peer work in Australia: A new future for mental health. Sydney: RichmondPRA and Mind Australia
  2. Erin wrote this article while on placement with MHCC ACT for her Cert IV in Mental Health from CIT

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