Peer support is a form of mental health care that’s growing in popularity.
Benefits include reduced isolation, empowerment, collaborative learning and connections with people who’ve had similar experiences. Some people say the relaxed environment helps them express issues they would struggle to share in a formal setting.
But it’s important to remember these benefits come with challenges.
Participants support others by drawing on their own experiences. While this support is authentic, it can be emotionally draining.
Triggers, emotional exhaustion, burnout and compassion fatigue are just some of the risks people face.
So how can people protect their emotions while participating in a peer support program? We asked members of SANE’s online peer support service, SANE Forums, for their tips to manage emotions while providing this essential support.
What risks do you experience?
- Encountering triggers and having my boundaries crossed. Discussions can suddenly turn and include triggering details or there’s an expectation of support. Zoe7
- Wanting to help and reply but not 100% sure on what to say or how to say it. I fear saying something that will upset the other person, or sound really stupid. Sometimes I worry and think of the person too much. BlueBay
- Exhaustion and isolation. Particularly when you're supporting someone who is going through uncommon experiences. SMC
- I spend a lot of time talking late into the night. I risk getting grumpy and irritable due to lack of sleep, this also affects my ability to listen and give advice. Odette
What boundaries do you set?
- I try to limit news stories. As much as I like being aware of the big picture and the world around me, sometimes it's too big. Occasionally I also find myself tuning out during difficult conversations to keep some equilibrium. I feel guilty for not giving my full attention, but at the same time realise I'm doing it to shield myself. Smc
- I have found it helpful to say I can't be part of a certain conversation. While I feel nervous that someone will be upset or feel off about it, I know I can't be any use to myself or others if I am in a whirlpool after being triggered. CheerBear
- It can be helpful to simply acknowledge someone's struggle and let them know that even though you aren't in a headspace to sit with them, you have heard them and you care. For me, clear and direct communication works best. Phoenix_rising
- I use something I refer to as 'passive-resistance'. I remain polite and carry through with caring actions, but I use a barrier of politeness as a shield. It gives you permission to retire emotionally for a while. I’m sure this is a skill used by nursing staff, air hostesses, bank clerks and hotel concierges. It's okay to apply it to the person we are caring for as a form of self-care, because we matter as much as they do. Faith-and-hope
What self-care measures do you use?
- Limiting my responses – so that’s liking posts without responding – and having a small group of 'supports' who know how to help me. It also helps to learn how to read a situation, judge when someone is getting adequate support from elsewhere and be prepared to step aside. Zoe7
- I have instigated a Forum curfew. It was hard work, but I can now go a few days without visiting the forums. Before responding I stop and think about whether I really have it in me to support that person. If I don't feel I have the energy, I remind myself that there are lots of other people online and I don't HAVE to engage with everyone who is struggling. This ensures I don't feel overwhelmed. I’m fully present when on the forum, but I can also leave it behind. Phoenix-rising
- It's important to take care of yourself, otherwise your effectiveness could be impaired. It's a 'put your oxygen mask on first' situation. It's also important to know your limitations when it comes to caring. soul
- Stressors compound and build towards a burnout, but remember self-care compounds too! Each self-care act adds to your overall wellbeing. Another concept is 'being your own best friend'. What would you do to help to a friend in your situation? Would you take them out for a coffee? Then take yourself out. Give them a hug? Hug yourself. By doing this you're applying self-comfort. Faith-and-hope
SANE Forum member self-care 'tips' for peer support
- It’s okay not to read posts that may be triggering.
- Always refer someone in crisis to appropriate services or ask for moderator intervention if feeling 'out of your depth'.
- Take time out if triggered by a post and respond at a later time.
- You can show your support by ‘Liking’ a post without responding.
- Be aware of your own limitations when reading and responding to posts.
- If you are ‘tagged’ into a discussion it does not mean you have an obligation to read or respond.
- It is ok to acknowledge that you have read a post and will respond at a later stage.
- It is ok to ask other members not to ‘tag’ or add you to conversations if the topic has the potential trigger memories or emotions.
Here at SANE we recommend that members create a self-care plan containing some of the above tips, to reduce the risk of burn out and compassion fatigue. Check out our recent Topic Tuesday for more information on self-care plans.
More to read . . .
- Avoiding carer burnout
- Self-care after someone discloses suicidal thoughts
- CBT and mindfulness for carers
- Boundary-setting and mental illness