Emily Clayton: What peer support means to me. @DPT_NHS

Emily Clayton: What peer support means to me

In a new ongoing series to shed light on the invaluable work of peer support workers in our organisation, Emily Clayton, Peer Support Worker Lead, shares her heartfelt reflection titled “What peer support means to me.” Emily’s personal story takes us through the significance of peer support and its ability to create positive transformations, whilst exploring the challenges, triumphs, and the connections that lie at the core of peer support.

What peer support means to me

During our Peer Support training course, as a tradition, we allocate the last day for new Peer Support Workers (PSWs) to deliver a brief presentation on what peer support means to them. This practice has led me to reflect on my own journey into this field and looking towards what could come next.

While becoming a peer support worker wasn’t my childhood dream, certain events during my upbringing did lead me here. Little did I know that I was never destined to have an amazing career in musical theatre, become a psychologist, or join NASA. These were all things that I had a lot of passion for but would remain a dream; dreams of a future that helped me tolerate the trauma that there was no escape from. Sadly, many of us can likely relate to such childhood aspirations and the unattainable goals we set for ourselves.

Nevertheless, here I am today – an adult with nearly grown children, living in a safe home, and working in a field that constantly challenges me, yet I love. When I first started in paid peer support, people often asked me how I “recovered and transitioned from my previous state to where I am now. However, there was never a simple answer. How do any of us end up where we are in life? It’s generally a mixture of upbringing, social circumstances, life events the list goes on. It becomes impossible to pinpoint all of the reasons we are where we are, and how we got here.

In terms of mental health support, it’s easier for me to express what I found helpful and perhaps, less helpful. I had my first encounter with a therapist around the age of six during a court-mandated family therapy session. I learned what it meant to be observant, how to answer questions the “right” way, and the shame associated with discussing certain topics. My journey followed a familiar pattern often seen within support services; adverse events in childhood, social services involvement, touching on CAMHS services, educational setbacks, addiction, chaos, and eventually entry into adult mental health services.

At the age of 17, I experienced my first inpatient stay in a mixed-sex adult ward – a frightening experience. I found solace and support among other patients in the smoking room. There, we would sit, chat, watch TV, and share the stories that led us to that place. Relationships were built, sometimes fleeting, but occasionally we would meet again in other services or during other admissions. I attended a day service for people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) for around four years of my late teens/early 20’s. I would engage in group activities, such as Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), woodwork, and playing board games (my least favourite group ever). Yet, the most valuable lesson I learnt was that I was not alone. There were others like me who struggled, who hadn’t had it easy, but were fighting every day of their lives to stay alive. I lost friends to suicide, but I also saw people move on and this service was my safe place.

When I think about peer support, I think about those relationships, the individuals who truly understood, inspired, and accepted me as a human being. That acceptance and connection is key to peer support. As we move forward around the country, recognising Peer Support as its own profession, we need to make sure that we hold on to the values and history that makes peer support so unique.