We tend to seek out the support of others when we feel vulnerable, lonely or are facing problems that seem too complex for us to solve. In order to receive that support, however, we need to open up and actually share those thoughts, feelings and situations that have caused us distress. Doing that in the line of a grocery store, in a crowded bus or during a five-minute break between classes would not be easy. As peer supporters, it is our task to find or create a suitable space that would be private and comfortable enough for our peer to feel as relaxed and safe as possible so they could share their concerns.
There are two main aspects to creating and maintaining a safe space: the physical space itself and the trust between the peers.
4.1 Physical space
As we have explained in earlier chapters, all our peers are unique when it comes to their needs and preferences. That being said, there are some suggestions or ideas that you could consider while preparing for a peer support meeting.
How to create a safe space:
- Choose a room with the least amount of interruptions, distractions, noise. In most cases that means a closed space without overwhelming decor and comfortable seating.
- If there is no such space, talk to your peer – would they feel safe talking while out on a walk or in a cafe?
- Consider online options if your peer has a difficult time being physically present or feels better opening up in their own home.
- Make sure you both have the time to speak without being in a hurry, also that the physical or online space is yours for the full session.
- Try to avoid using overly bright lights, natural light is always the best.
- Keep some tissues at hand so you do not need to leave to get some when necessary.
- Turn off or mute your phone or other devices.
- In case your peer feels restless or struggles to talk while being still, discuss doing some activities together like drawing, walking, handicrafts.
- If possible, offer a cup of tea or some water.
- If you want to make the space extra nice, you can set up some natural sounds or classical music for the background (always check with the peer if that is okay).
Trust is defined as an assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; or a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). In the context of peer support we can talk about trust as the belief that our peers only want the best of us, will only act in accordance to our wishes and needs and will keep whatever sensitive information to themselves.Peer support relies on trust heavily, as both peers (the supporter and the person supported) often reveal to each other memories and experiences that they would not want the general public to know. Fostering trust, however, is not easy. Especially for many people with mental health difficulties, who have felt betrayed in the past by specialists, friends or family members that they have trusted and relied on. It is only natural for these people to be cautious about sharing parts of themselves that feel vulnerable and hurt. Gaining someone’s trust can take some time, which is why it’s best to take your time and start with easier topics. Try to get to know your peer by asking about their living situation, work, hobbies, etc. It’s a good idea to start each session with some casual chatting to “warm up” and end it in a similar fashion to “cool down;” this makes it easier for the person to adjust to the situation and afterwards continue with their day without ruminating over the painful memories they perhaps shared. Trust also has to do with expectations. When the peer has unrealistic expectations like hoping that you will become best friends or that they will be cured, then it can lead to disappointment and mistrust. For that reason expectations, boundaries (read more about boundaries in chapter 2.1) and fears should be addressed foremost at the first meeting, if possible.
Here are some more ways you can foster trust:
- Confidentiality: do not share any personal information that you are trusted with*. Make sure the space you hold your meetings in is adequately private and comfortable.
- Connection: the shared experiences you have create a rare connection and deep understanding of the other person. This should not be taken for granted, however, and it is important to remember that despite the similarities, our experiences are one of a kind and this connection needs to be bolstered by empathic listening and acceptance of their differences.
- Acceptance: let the peer know that there is room for any feeling or opinion. Try to keep your own beliefs and principles to yourself (especially if they clash with your peers’) and avoid getting into political, religious, etc arguments.
- Support: allow your peer to lead the conversation where they need it to go, but ask supporting and clarifying questions. Check in with the peer from time to time during the meeting, especially if they seem upset or overly emotional. Make sure they have the possibility to choose the pace and the depth of their sharing.
- Non-judgemental attitude: do not pass judgement or criticise your peer for their actions, instead try to guide them in self-reflecting and reaching their own conclusions.
- Body language: have an open and inviting body language, showing that you’re present and interested in what your peer has to say. That means putting aside any electronic devices, avoiding constantly checking the time and reacting appropriately in the conversation by smiling, nodding, making eye contact and mirroring your peers body language.
- Equality: while you are probably a few steps ahead in your recovery, make sure to remember that you are both just people with difficult experiences trying to support one another. Let your peer know in no uncertain terms that you are not a specialist or there to cure them, nor will you give them a diagnosis or pass any sort of judgement.
- Vulnerability: as your peer trusts you with their concerns and fears, do share some of your own when you feel that it’s appropriate. Talking a little about your own experiences might help them feel less lonely in what they’re going through and motivate them to keep going.
* Two exceptions to the rule of confidentiality: 1) sharing with a supervisor, that can help you figure out how to help your peers better, and who is bound by their organisational code of confidentiality; 2) if you become aware of your peer being in high risk for suicide (has a concrete plan, motivation and means), it is important to address it urgently by calling emergency services, going to the emergency room or sharing the information with a close person that your peer trusts.
Safety and trust can be difficult to create for your peer, as they might depend more on their past experiences than what you do for them here in the present. If we manage to make someone feel safe, however, the peer support relationship will work beautifully.