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Misconceptions and Myths about Lived Experience Peer Workers

 The concept of a Lived Experience staff is a reasonably new but quickly emerging and popular notion within the Mental Health field. However, the idea of having people with their own lived experience of mental illness or distress supporting other people with mental health issues is still a foreign idea to some. As such, there are still many misconceptions or misunderstandings about who lived experience workers are or what they even do. Therefore, as lived experience peer support workers ourselves, we thought we would debunk some of the common misconceptions and answer some of the questions we get about our lived experience peer support workers!

1.Sooo….what even is a Lived Experience Peer Support Worker?

A Lived Experience peer support worker is often defined as someone who is employed in a role that involves them having a lived experience of mental illness or distress and recovery. Further, they can then effectively apply their experience and knowledge in practice within the context of the role to support others.

2.What are the benefits of a having a Lived Experience workforce

There are many benefits to having a lived experience workforce! For instance, workers with a lived experience can understand the experience of illness, oppression, and discrimination that many people face when trying to access mental health support. In addition, lived experience staff also have their own periods of recovery and healing, and therefore can provide real and practical advice and strategies when dealing with mental health. Furthermore, speaking to someone with lived experience often removes the power dynamics and imbalances that are commonly found in consumer/service provider relationships. 

3. "So, you have lived experience but no actual mental health training or qualifications?"

There is a common misconception that lived experience staff have no official training or qualifications. In fact, it could not be further from the truth! At LETSS, all our staff are highly trained and have qualifications and backgrounds in various aspects of mental health including social work, teaching, community development, counselling, psychology, and other allied health fields. Our qualifications in combination with our lived experience give us a diverse and rich understanding of mental health. 

4I cannot tell you my problems because I am worried you are too vulnerable or too much at risk due to your lived experience background

This is something we get from time to time ...callers that are worried about our wellbeing or worried about sharing with us because they feel we cannot handle it. However, it is important to note our lived experience does not make us more vulnerable or at greater risk of burnout! We are all extremely equipped and trained in hearing about or supporting people through difficult situations. In fact, going through our own lived experience has given us even greater resilience and tools to help us remain calm and cope in difficult situations.

More importantly, just because 'lived experience' is in our job title this does not mean we are defined by our mental health. Look at it this way, the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2007 estimated that nearly 1 in 2 (46%) of Australians experienced a mental health condition in their lifetime. In addition, it is also estimated that 1 in 5 (20%) of the population had experienced a common mental disorder in the previous 12 months. When considering these statistics, it is probable that you have met many people who have experienced mental illness or distress without you even knowing! Hence, although we may make it publicly known that we have Lived Experience this does not mean at all that we cannot do our job properly or to the highest standard.

5. If I cannot talk to someone with the exact diagnosis or experience as me, then what is the point of having lived experience staff?

We sometimes get callers asking or requesting to speak to a peer that has the exact same diagnosis or experience as them. However, this is not always something that we can provide. Reason being, everyone is unique and different and whilst people may have similar experiences no one is ever going to have the exact same experience as you because they are not you. Therefore, whilst we may not always be able to provide someone with the exact same experience what we can provide is a shared understanding, compassion, and a safe space to share. In addition, we can also provide further referrals to social or support groups in which you can seek support from people with the same diagnosis or who are experiencing a similar situation. 

6.Since you have lived experience, can I ask you personal questions about yourself?

It is an amazing feeling when you share something with someone and you are met with something like "Me too! I have felt exactly the same way before" or at least something similar. At LETSS, we understand how great the feeling is when you can connect or relate to someone, and we know it can be a powerful healing tool. That is why at LETSS we may sometimes self-disclose aspects of our own lived experienced with our callers. However, just as we respect our callers' privacy and to only share, what they feel comfortable with, we also are entitled to our privacy and to disclose only what we feel is relevant to the call and what we feel comfortable with. That is why at LETSS we always welcome all kinds of questions however we may just not always have the answers. At the end of the day, the call is about our wonderful callers, not us! 

7. Can you give me advice or the answer to my problem?

We are here to provide a friendly and supportive listening ear, talk through your problems, and help you make sense of your experiences. As such, we may suggest certain strategies or services, however we are not here to necessarily provide direct advice or opinions. Instead, at LETSS we take on a collaborative approach meaning we can talk through and look at your options together, and work out a plan together. At the end of the day, you are the expert in your life and we are just here to help guide you! 

(Image from Unsplash by Kate Kalvach)

References: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/mental-health

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