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Jesse Bigelow's schizophrenia symptoms started when he was 19. Today, at age 33, he is a peer counsellor and helps others deal with their mental health problems. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Jesse Bigelow's schizophrenia symptoms started when he was 19. Today, at age 33, he is a peer counsellor and helps others deal with their mental health problems. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

State of Mind Part 4: Peer counselling

Who better to guide the 'walking wounded' than someone who's been there? Add to ...

If you were a young person grappling with schizophrenia, Jesse Bigelow would be a good guy to get to know.

He has been there: At 19, he thought the devil was speaking to him through the television and he would rant about God to strangers on the street. Desperate, his parents finally called the police and had him admitted to hospital for his own safety.

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But he made it through and now, at 33, Mr. Bigelow is trying to help others do the same. He is employed by the Canadian Mental Health Association as a “peer-support” worker – one of a growing number of people who have received mental-health care and want to make the experience easier and more positive for those following in their footsteps.

Mr. Bigelow is paid essentially to listen and offer hope, not answers. If asked for advice – How do I tell a prospective date about my mental illness? Should I go back to work? – he says he will share his experiences rather than his opinion.

Sometimes, he meets parents in the waiting room while their sons and daughters are seeing a psychiatrist, and tries to reassure them. At other times, he simply takes someone for coffee or socializes around the pool table at a group gathering. “People feel safer when I tell my story,” he says. “It's not just about trust, it's about being on the same wavelength.”

Research has shown that contact with someone who has recovered from mental illness can shorten patients’ time in hospital and improve their quality of life. As a result, peer-support workers are increasingly found in hospital psychiatric wards.

“Treating mental illness is not a like a physical ailment, where you write a prescription or bring someone in for surgery,” says Patrick Raymond, who oversees two dozen workers with the Communitas Supportive Care Society in B.C.'s Fraser Valley.

“It needs to be much more holistic than that. Peer-support workers are kind of like the midwife for mental health.”

And like midwives, they have had to fight for recognition from the medical establishment, which forever worries that untrained amateurs may interfere with treatment determined by the professionals.

As a result, the Canadian Mental Health Commission now plans to formalize the role that peer-support workers play by providing a system of accreditation that it hopes will clarify – and therefore elevate – their status.

Advocates envision a system of care in which people struggling with almost any mental illness can find comfort in the form of someone, in a hospital or the workplace, who has overcome it.

Determination rooted in the pain of Rwanda

“The vast majority of people who have gone through a mental-health issue, will tell you that peer support was a lifesaver for them,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Stéphane Grenier, currently on leave from the Canadian Forces and working with the commission, which is financed by Health Canada to develop a national strategy for mental health.

Col. Grenier's task is to expand research into peer support and to help develop the guidelines for certification – and he speaks from experience.

He suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome, a consequence of serving with the United Nations force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Talking to fellow soldiers, he says, assisted in his recovery, but the fact that these conversations took place only by happenstance seemed wrong – especially when he came across military research showing that a lack of social support was a key risk factor for developing a severe mental-health issue.

In 2001, he was instrumental in introducing a formal peer-support program to the Canadian Forces. The idea was that soldiers could speak from a shared experience in a way that civilians, even therapists, could not.

“If I had a dime for every story I heard, someone saying, ‘Colonel, you have no idea how good it is to be sitting across the table from someone who gets it, who gives me hope,' ” Col. Grenier says.

However, he cautions: “This is not a pity party, where I am sad, you're sad, and we are all sitting around in our sadness. It's about hope.”

Now, he wants to bring the same approach to the private sector. This fall, two companies will launch pilot projects in the workplace modelled on the Canadian Forces initiative. They will recruit and train staff members to offer peer support to colleagues who are struggling, often in secret, with problems such as depression and anxiety.

“I think this will pay huge dividends,” Col. Grenier says. “... There are a lot of walking wounded out there.”

But he expects to face a challenge in finding peers willing to go public about what they have been through.

“When you break a leg, you look forward to everyone signing the cast. When you develop a mental illness, you don't want to see anybody.”

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