The Reality and Worth of the Lived Experience.
Consumer is a political term used to describe a population who have who access services and have high service needs. The human element is completely erased. But this is the term we are currently using. This may not always be the case in the future.
For those who work the role of consumer companion a more accurate title might well be a professional personal companion. This is far from being a new concept. Many of the world’s finest artists, composers, writers, thinkers and politicians throughout history have employed the services of a paid companion. In the majority of cases these relationships were completely platonic. So what did a companion do? Quite simply they were there. There to help with tasks, to provide company, conversation, intellectual stimulation, advocacy and emotional and physical care. This was all done within a platonic framework or boundary. In the corporate world these people are called personal assistants and often work well outside of the standard job description. This is a transferrable archetype.
Even Peer Support lacks certain humanism. It reduces both the Peer and the Person to tightly defined roles without the obvious boundaries. The Peer experience, the lived experience as it stands right now, will not be the panacea that many hope for. The reason is very simple.
Any experience is limited to how that experience is interpreted and then how it is utilised. How it is utilised is limited by the experiences a person has which once again are interpreted and utilised by earlier experiences. Life is experience, its interpretation and its utilisation is a linear process defined and limited in and by time.
You may have a lived experience of Bi-Polar. The person you support has a lived experience of Bi-Polar, without adding any other variables these experiences are not shared homogenously. The experiences themselves will differ immensely. The interpretation will be exponentially different. How each experience is utilised will differ yet again at an even greater order of magnitude.
So what is the point of a job that requires the worker to have a lived experience? Your lived experience gives you an emotional insight which those without such a background cannot hope to emulate. Just that, in and of itself makes any peer program worthwhile, as long as that person receives good training and is able to learn new skills. One of those skills is self- directed learning. It is extraordinarily helpful when supporting a person to actually understand the diagnosis. Become familiar with the symptomology. A small amount of clinical knowledge can make the difference when interpreting a person’s behaviour.
With mental illness few things are simple. But by having a base level understanding of your client’s illness, you will be more aware of potential barriers and challenges in communication. For the Peer worker communication is the life and soul of the job. Having a little clinical knowledge along with the wisdom gained from interpreting your own lived experience allows for a special skill. That skill is empathy.
Empathy is kind of like the fifth element in supporting someone. Though you may be able to draw on your own experience, you may find it difficult to identify with another’s experience simply because their experience is theirs alone and therefore alien to you, so you may not identify with it nor understand the behaviour it has engendered. You though, have lived a life full of challenges that parallel with the person and it is that which allows you empathy which in turn allows to understand another’s intrinsic being as they live their lives.
With empathy comes understanding. With understanding comes patience, and patience or the lack of it is the key to a continuity of quality of care. Let’s remember we are care givers, not care takers.
Lived experience workers could well be the game changer in mental health care. This can only happen though if we combine our understanding of your own experience, a basic clinical knowledge of mental illness and disorders and be open to understanding the experience of the person you are working with. So when we work with a person we must get to know as much of them as they will allow. This will carry you and the person you are working with a lot further than has been possible in the past. This will also allow the person you are working with to increase their own understanding of the illness. As stated before with understanding comes patience and the person you work with needs to have patience with themselves also.How it is uti;liHaH