Living with a mental illness can be an isolated existence. The stigma associated with mental illness doesn’t help either. While there are many treatments and supports that help people recover, there is one tool that is often left untapped. This tool is peer support.
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Vernon and District has been operating its Peer Support program for 21 years, offering social contact and support for community members with mental illness.
“Today (Oct. 18) is Global Peer Support Day where we acknowledge the power of peer support and bring awareness to the community so nobody has to suffer in isolation,” said Julia Payson, executive director of CMHA Vernon and District.
“Our team of trained volunteers who have experienced mental illness in their lives provide one-on-one support to individuals in our community and offer the opportunity to take part in social activities once a week.”
CMHA Peer Supporters are trained in recovery guidance and share knowledge and experiences from coping strategies to helping navigate the mental health system and can refer individuals to programs and services in the North Okanagan.
The relationship between an individual and their peer supporter is one that is supportive and encouraging.
“There is no “one size fits all” approach to mental health recovery, but peer support can help you find what works for you,” said Payson.
“Many of our Peer Support volunteers have accessed the Peer Support Program for themselves, and their health has benefited, so they have decided to volunteer to help others,” she said.
Vernon resident Patricia has been volunteering with the program for 20 years.
“You meet fantastic people – the staff, volunteers and peers. It helps me, too, because I get out of the house and I get to use my education that I worked so hard for,” said Patricia, who has earned a Masters degree.
Christy has been volunteering with peer support for three-and-a-half years.
“It distracts me from own illness and I get to help people. I was once that lost puppy dog and didn’t know the resources that were available,” she said.
Trained as a residential care aid, Christy says her education helped her to learn to accept people for who they are despite their health challenges.
“Physical and emotional pain can be the same. But with physical pain it can be easier to treat and deal with than emotional pain. We need to treat mental health the same as physical health,” she said.
“Many people only hear about us when they end up in the hospital, so we see them at their sickest. With us being peers we know what they are going through.”
“Sometimes they tell us more than they tell their doctors, so we encourage them to talk to their doctors to get the help they need,” said Patricia.
“This is a nice, non-judgmental place to come. We help people build confidence and acquire skills in a safe environment,” she said.
“The best thing is you get to see the change in people from when you first visit them at the hospital,” said Christy.
The program currently has 14 volunteers and is looking for more to meet the demand.
“People who are caring, empathetic, and accepting and who have good listening skills make great volunteers,” said Patricia.
“In Vernon, we are very lucky to have the number of resources available for a community this size. We also have good networking between services,” she said.
The Peer Support Program operates 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Friday at the CMHA office located at 3100-28th Avenue. Volunteers are there to answer phone calls and welcome walk-ins. Peer Support Services are offered free of charge and maintain a strict code of confidentiality at all times.
Volunteers visit the Vernon Jubilee Hospital Inpatient Psychiatric Unit on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays to provide support for individuals receiving treatment. Dedicated volunteers also visit the hospital on holidays to ensure those without family in the area don’t face isolation during holidays throughout the year.
“Many of our volunteers have experienced a stay at the hospital and can provide unparalleled support for those facing one of the most challenging times in their lives,” said Payson.
“Funding from Interior Health allows CMHA to offer Peer Support Services and community support helps us educate the community about this essential service. In-kind and financial donations also ensure Peer Support Services are responsive and accessible and allow us to provide Christmas Gifts, holiday parties, and other additional supports.”
To help fund the program, please contact 250-542-3114 ext. 224.