One of the most far-reaching commitments in the government’s mental health strategy when it was published last February was for Recovery to become the defining goal of mental health services in England.
While the idea of Recovery as an aim for mental health services has been around for a long time, making it the primary objective is another thing and the implications of this are considerable. Among those implications is the need for a big increase in the recruitment of peer support workers as vital members of the mental health workforce alongside traditional mental health professionals such as doctors, nurses and social workers.
Developing the role of peer support workers is one of the ten organisational challenges set out in the Centre’s Implementing Recovery. Through our work with the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network to support services to take on these challenges, it is becoming clear that peer workers can, with the right support, have a transformative effect on the organisations in which they work.
At an individual level, peer workers have unique insights into the issues that other service users face in making their Recovery journeys. They can also convey a sense of hope and opportunity for a life outside illness and, just as crucially, are able to use their skills and experience to earn an income from paid work.
Organisationally, just the simple presence of peer workers can spark many more changes, for example in the development of wider opportunities and in supporting people to make decisions about their lives and treatment choices.
One of the catalysts for this development was a visit to the UK in 2009 by Gene Johnson, chief executive of Recovery Innovations in Arizona, whose workforce includes large numbers of peer workers in many different roles at all levels of the organisation. His challenge to mental health services here was to be ambitious, be optimistic and above all be courageous in thinking about what people using mental health services can do.
Three years later and Gene Johnson is returning this month to speak at a conference organised by the NHS Confederation on the development of peer support workers in the UK. This has attracted a lot of interest. However, much has changed in that time. A number of mental health trusts and other providers are now beginning to offer paid roles for peer workers in clinical teams, supporting their development by establishing Recovery Colleges where the training can be based. These also provide service users with opportunities to work with staff on an equal basis to co-produce courses on living with mental illness and then deliver these to mixed audiences of staff and other service users.
Establishing Recovery as the defining principle of mental health services in England is not, however, all plain sailing. We are some way from reaching the tipping point from which progress is inexorable. Peer workers cannot simply be recruited as a form of cheap labour in tough economic times, for example. Nor should they become second class workers remaining subservient to more established professions. While there is no single “right” way to incorporate peer workers within the mental health workforce, there are plenty of wrong ways to do it and we need to be alert to them.
But that should not distract us from meeting the challenge we have been set. Mental health services across the UK have begun to move towards a Recovery focus. Growing numbers of peer workers are taking up new roles and Recovery Colleges are opening in a number of NHS trusts. The opportunity stands ahead of us to do something truly radical. If we take that chance, the difference it could make to the lives of many thousands of people and their families really could be really far-reaching.