Transitions and stress in peer support services

Being a peer specialist is hard work. Before becoming a peer specialist, I was employed in another entry-level mental health position, in a day treatment program.

Although work in the day treatment program was challenging, I have found that my work as a peer specialist is even more so. Perhaps because the peer support program is new, and helping to establish a new program is always tough; perhaps because there are few established tools and protocols to help peer specialists do their jobs; perhaps because my job responsibilities as a peer specialist are more varied; perhaps because I do more in-depth work with my peers in my current position; perhaps because I never have a “typical day” or set schedule as a peer specialist; or perhaps because I have to tell my own story over and over (and over) in this position (that can be emotional!)…. whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, I’m finding the peer specialist position to be challenging.

Stress can be a huge contributing factor to bringing out symptoms of mental illness. There’s evidence that people with mental illnesses produce more cortisol in their bodies when they become stressed, and that it takes them longer to return to “baseline”–or “normal”–levels of cortisol in their bodies.

Although I whole-heartedly wanted to move from day treatment to peer support work, I found the transition to be, well, stressful. And although I’m fortunate in that my agency has been very supportive of my role here as a peer specialist, that stress from changing jobs brought on a new round of symptoms for me: increased irritability, insomnia, and fluctuating emotions.

There have been times when I’ve felt overwhelmed. There have been times that I’ve felt I’m not doing a good job. There have even been a few times I’ve come home after a long day and cried.

I’ve actually had to start taking medications again, and get back into individual therapy, to help me cope with the stress.

That being said, when I start to get overwhelmed or down on myself, I make a deliberate effort to get out of my own head and view my work through the eyes of my employer. Am I really doing such a terrible job? If I were to leave, would they truly be glad, or would that create some stress for them?

There may very well be peer specialists out there who do a better job than me–I am not so arrogant as to think I’m the best one around! I have a lot to learn. However, if I look at things objectively, I also know that, in our area, it would be difficult for my agency to replace me at this point. Hopefully, as more consumers complete the certification course, and as more consumers are ready to enter the workplace, there will soon be many of us qualified and able to tackle this job! But right now, in our area, I know my agency does not want to lose me, because, yes, it would be hard to replace me… and because really, I’m not doing a bad job!

So when my symptoms flare up, when I feel overwhelmed, when I enumerate the mistakes I make over and over in my head, I stop and remind myself–you’re really not doing so bad. And then I think about what I’ve done (and continue to do) as a peer specialist:

-Marketed the program

-Introduced agency new-hires to the Recovery movement

-Help/ed over a dozen peers identify goals and work on coping skills

-Participated in mental health awareness events

-Started this website!

-Spoke as a consumer voice during the county needs assessment interviews

-Designed forms for peer support services charts

-Inspired hope in consumers and awareness in staff by telling my story at numerous residential sites, new-hire orientations, staff trainings, local agencies, our local hospital, and on the radio

Overall? I have been busy! My employer is paying me for something–and something worthwhile, at that.

So what I really want to say here is this: for peer specialists who come into this job and feel stressed out, unsure, and wondering how to do a job without a clearly defined job description? It’s okay–it’s normal. I’d already been working full-time, and I still found the job transition difficult–and continue to find the job challenging. But peer support as a legitimate, paid service is so new. The start-up period is bound to be difficult. What I have to remind myself is that I am not expected to be superwoman–no one expects little old me to transform the system (or help peers transform their lives) overnight–and most importantly: I’m doing okay.

I may not be the best peer specialist around, but I’m doing okay. I may have a lot to learn, but I’m doing okay.

All I need to do is hang in there through the start-up period. Eventually we all–peer specialists, the state, agencies–will get through this transition time.

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