What is peer work and how can it help my teen?

In their work with young people, ReachOut’s peer workers have come across many questions from parents and carers. Often, it’s about wanting to better understand what peer work actually is and the type of support it can provide their teens.

We had Emily, Peer Work Team Leader at ReachOut, sit down for an honest chat with Marty, whose five kids range in age from 4 to 19, to answer some of those key questions.

Read the transcript.

What is peer work?

Peer work, also known as peer support, is a form of mental health support.

Peer workers are professionals who have had their own experience of mental health and other life challenges and are trained to use their lived experience to support others. They can help your teen to feel heard, validated and less alone, as well as promote their self-care and recovery.

Peer workers can also link your teen up with relevant supports and services, help them to navigate the mental health system, explore their own resources, and work together with them to set goals.

What sort of things can my teen talk to a peer worker about?

Like Emily, peer workers have been on their own mental health journeys and are really open about their experiences. Importantly, your teen guides the conversation with the peer worker, so that they talk about what your child wants to chat about.

A peer worker’s experience might include areas such as:

  • work or study stress

  • issues with friends, family and other relationships

  • problems at home

  • mental health

  • drugs, alcohol and other substance use

  • gender and sexuality

  • cultural identity

  • trauma

  • grief and loss

  • suicide

  • self-harm.

What kind of training do peer workers have?

Generally, organisations will provide their own training, which can cover things like the purposeful sharing of lived experience, safe storytelling and active listening skills.

Every peer worker will also have duty of care training, which involves developing skills in how to respond to risk of harm. Some peer workers will also complete a Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work.

Peer workers will often have a manager or someone else that they can go to for support and supervision, too. This can help to guide the peer worker and ensure that your teen is getting the best support possible.

When would my teen see a peer worker, and when might they see a GP or psychologist?

Your teen could link in with a peer worker before, during or after receiving support from another mental health professional.

However, it’s important to note that some areas may be outside the scope of what a peer worker can provide. For example, peer workers can’t provide diagnoses or medical advice, and they aren’t trained to provide counselling.

That said, a peer worker can be a great stepping stone for your teen in seeking support. Often, young people find it hard to talk to clinicians such as doctors and psychologists. But a peer worker is in the perfect position to guide your teen through this journey and to help them work out when and how to communicate with other care providers.

Can I find out what my teen is talking to a peer worker about?

Chats with a peer worker are totally confidential. The peer worker has a legal responsibility to keep everything your teen says private. For more information, you can share this article about confidentiality with your teen.

The only exception to confidentiality is if your teen or someone else is at risk of serious harm. In this case, a peer worker may have a duty of care to alert someone else to help keep the teen safe, whether this is emergency services, a parent or carer, or another family member.

If my teen is in an emergency or crisis, can a peer worker help them?

A peer worker isn’t a crisis role, so they can’t provide immediate emergency support. However, if there is a risk of harm, they are trained to escalate if needed. If your teen does need immediate support, they can call a 24/7 crisis helpline such as:

How can I help my teen find a peer worker?

You can help your teen find a peer worker in a range of settings. These include:

  • hospitals

  • community health centres

  • local health district and clinics

  • mental health organisations such as headspace

  • online options such as ReachOut PeerChat (for young people aged 18–25).

Depending on the organisation, your teen can chat with a peer worker online, over the phone or in person.

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