Guest Column: The gift of peer support |

Guest Column: The gift of peer support

The holiday season can be a time full of meaningful traditions and celebrations, but it can also trigger stress, grief and anxiety.

Annual events act as signposts to remind us of the past, when things might have been better — or just different. A family rift or loss can layer on the pain of not being included in activities or celebrations as they once were, and these remembrances can cause us to feel our grief and disappointments once again.

Financial stress also is common at this time of the year, and our personal struggles are often actively ignited in the midst of this season, no matter how festive or commemorative it’s meant to be.

These emotional responses to the holidays are what often bring us to seek out the support of peers. Peers can be the caring people already in our lives who have experienced a similar situation, but peers also can come in the form of peer specialists who are trained to offer peer guidance and support.

It’s normal to want to talk with someone when we’re stressed, depressed or anxious. Human connection promotes healing. But also it’s important to choose peers wisely to avoid the “misery loves company” trap.

Peer support is based on a relationship that can benefit all involved, as shared understanding helps prevent feelings of loneliness and grief while promoting healing. For those in need of peer support, begin by taking stock of current relationships. Beware of spending too much time with others who add layers of grief rather than supporting a move toward improved health.

Even with the best intentions, someone considered a peer might be pushy or misunderstand what it means to truly support others in a healthy way. At other times, peers can become overly helpful and cross into the realm of co-dependence.

Some people who have life experience to share can be a great part of a positive peer support system, whether they’re trained or untrained. These peers are all about being there for others, so they can be counted on to respond with empathy and enthusiasm.

Being a positive peer comes naturally to some, and offering this gift to others can be more important than any gift given this holiday season. Untrained peers who would like to build helpful and healthy relationships with others also can benefit from becoming trained peer specialists.

Trained peer specialists, like those who are a part of the peer support programs offered through Mind Springs Health, are aware of the pitfalls that can be detrimental to some peer relationships. They also have experience and understanding in offering trauma-informed support.

Plus, they have the skills they need to respond to others in a caring way while keeping the focus on moving forward. With personal experience, trained peer specialists also have insider knowledge to share about what it’s like to make it through the same thing that may now be the source of someone else’s struggle.

A meeting with a trained peer specialist often begins with some time in which a person in need of support talks through the situation. A peer specialist will listen carefully, ask for clarifying details, and provide support, which could involve sharing ideas or skills that have been helpful in a similar situation.

Members of a peer support system will always respond with empathy. They can remember when they were in the shoes of someone who needed support, or in a similar pair, and they’re willing to do what they can to help during this time.

Sometimes simply meeting to talk with a peer can be the source of comfort, as emotional healing happens through connections, of all kinds, with others.

It’s possible to do much healing work on our own, but having an understanding, supportive person to walk alongside us makes the process so much easier.

Janice Curtis is the Peer Support Services Manager for Mind Springs Health, directing a team of more than 30 peers. With 13 outpatient locations across Colorado’s Western Slope as well as West Springs Hospital in Grand Junction, Mind Springs Health offers care to those seeking substance abuse treatment and mental health support.

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