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The unique contribution of older people with a lived experience of mental illness to the peer workforce: observations from older peer workers

Dominiek Coates, Patrick Livermore, Raichel Green


Background: The development of peer work models that are integrated into health systems is at the heart of national and international reform agenda in mental health. Peer work differs from other mental health roles as it is provided by people who have a lived experience of mental illness and recovery and does not assume a medical model. Peer work in mental health services for older people is not well established and to address this gap we developed, implemented and evaluated a peer work model for older patients of a specialist mental health service.

Method: The findings discussed in this paper are part of a broader evaluation and consist of qualitative observations made by the peer workers during focus groups. Three focus groups were conducted during the first year of the project to identify the peer workers’ perspectives, feelings and thoughts around the developing peer work model and how they were impacted by the work. Data collection and analysis was inductive and informed by grounded theory principles. Observations from peer workers are discussed in relation to the literature as well as observations made by the researchers during project implementation.

Results: Analysis suggests that older peer workers have a level of maturity and experience with recovery that benefit the peer workforce in a number of ways namely (a) significant experience with recovery to draw on when helping others; (b) a well-established sense of identity and coping strategies that support wellbeing and (c) ability to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in peer work practice. We propose that having a strong sense of self or personal identity may be important in peer work, particularly as the peer work role is often challenged, questioned and unclear.

Conclusion: Older peer workers provide a valuable contribution to the peer workforce and bring with them an array of strengths that can help overcome some of the common peer work implementation barriers.


Age-related strengths, barriers, change agents, focus groups, implementation, key stakeholders, peer work, person-centered healthcare, recovery from mental illness, specialist mental health services for older people, wisdom

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