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The Perspective
The Perspective

January 31, 2018

The power of peer support in health care

Photo of Kelly McNaughton

Kelly McNaughton is Manager of the Peer Support Program at SickKids.

Each January, the “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign generates more momentum for raising mental health awareness. But it also serves as a bittersweet reminder about the pervasiveness of mental illness and the myths and misconceptions that have contributed to stigma, stereotyping, discrimination and neglect of those who experience mental health issues.

According to the World Health Organization, one in four people are affected by a mental health issue in their lifetime and a significant two thirds of this population does not seek help from a health professional. Facts such as these illustrate the stark reality of the prevalence of mental health issues among us and that unfortunately, many people still suffer in silence, including those who work in health care.

Acknowledging that compassion fatigue, burnout, second victim distress and traumatic stress are common issues that affect health-care professionals, SickKids has launched The Peer Support and Trauma Program. The goal of the program is to improve the psychological health and safety of our staff and penetrate the cycle of silence around the topic of mental health.

While traditional peer support programs have been patient-centered, peer support as a workplace-based program is a relatively new phenomenon. The Mental Health Commission of Canada in conjunction with the Workforce Advisory Committee has recently shifted its focus on promoting peer support as a core and essential component for organizations and communities.   

Aligned with our Caring Safely initiative, the SickKids Peer Support Program is one of only a few hospital-wide peer programs in Canada and the first among our paediatric counterparts. The program's unique model is based on the respected principles of Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM).

SickKids’ Peer Team consists of 41 cross-disciplinary staff with specialized training and certification in assessment, communication skills, trauma principles and trauma response. The role of the peer is to provide confidential support, to listen, inspire, gently challenge and encourage while helping colleagues deal with stress and personal concerns.

Peers are a source of rich social and emotional support, their virtue being that they are similar to their colleagues in fundamental ways. They have a shared understanding of the work culture and stresses, relevant lived experiences and experiential knowledge.

Peers also occupy the pivotal role of engaging in coordinated trauma response. They assist with psychological defusings and debriefings, interventions that enable staff exposed to a traumatic incident to process the event and reflect on its impact. Using the CISM model, peers are able to deliver support using this integrative crisis intervention system that spans the temporal dimensions of a traumatic event.

Since its launch in January 2018, the Peer Support Program has already seen considerable access and requests for intervention. The next phase for the program is scheduled for late spring of 2018 and will focus on physician peer support. Response to and support for second victim issues will be a particular focus of this team.

Although still in its infancy, SickKids’ Peer Support Program demonstrates our unwavering commitment to promoting the resiliency, well-being and sustainability of our staff. Through meaningful support, peers can make a permanent impact on a colleague’s mental health journey and contribute to the prevention of additional challenges and hardship. Nurturing the well-being of our staff enables us to continue to fulfill our ultimate goal of providing the best care possible to patients and families.