If you're in the public sector, HOPEfully Peer Support is not a foreign concept. I cannot imagine a successful emergency service agency that does not have a robust program. Let's get into the down and dirty:
Why Peer Support?
Because we see some wild n' crazy people doing some wild n' crazy things. And we might be the ones who are really wild n' crazy because we're the ones signing up to get the front row seat! (all sights, smells, feels and hopefully very, very rarely... tastes (ewww)).
What is Peer Support?
It is exactly as it sounds- providing care and support for your coworkers. Plain and simple. Sure- we can build programs, provide training, create curriculum, events, and on and on. But at the crux of it, policies and practices are just a formalized way to ensure something is done- and done right.
Peer Support is CULTURE. It is a team dynamic practice where trust is strong and people reach out when they have a problem. They engage others and are receptive to feedback and help. It is also proactive. It means team members are looking out for one another and recognizing when there may be signs of a problem, no matter how small.
Some states have laws or codes that protect speech given in peer support- keeping that "privileged" conversation. This means I can chat with my peer support and they can't be compelled to testify in court to what I said. Check your local guidelines! Regardless, we don't keep notes.
And not to be difficult, but to be technical, anyone who has had to testify in court or deposition after 1-2 years can attest that it is IMPOSSIBLE to recall details accurately without notes or evidence to refer to. That is a true and honest protection to people's concerns about potential compelled statements (for federal trial as an example, potentially).
Who are Peer Support?
Typically, Peer Support team members are selected, nominated, or otherwise appointed for the organization. They should be vetted as trusted members of the team, first and foremost. TRUST. Keyword. Without it, you can't give help. Without it, you can't receive it, either. You can't communicate; you can't have a legitimate team absent trust. Openness, vulnerability, and growth all depend on it.
Peer Support members should span different facets of the organization. For instance, at my department, there are both sworn (officer) and civilian team members. There is a goal to have peer team members spread within the various units, shifts, and ranks- aka someone for everyone.
When/Where do you use Peer Support?
Historically, this is usually triggered under "critical incidents" like an officer death, officer involved shootings, gruesome death, substantial crime to a child... the most horrific calls. Often times this can be more formalized in efforts like Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) through a Critical Incident Stress Debrief (CISD). Those are fancy terms for systematic, organized meetings focused on supporting mental health and decompression by going through the event- accounts, experiences, take-aways and guided support.
However, here's my take:
Peer Support is anywhere, anytime. It's a culture. It's a simple shift of "hey how's it going" and noticing something is off. It's offering a safe space, understanding, and "check ins" to really take care of our people- your team:
"Hey man, you seem off. Wanna chat?"
OR what me and my buddies evolved into doing:
"Bro. Something's up. Peer Support, I'm here."
Of course this takes trust, and trust takes time and building relationship. It is the goal and you can always make progress by demonstrating commitment and proving care. And of course- NEVER violate that trust or confidentiality.
HOW do you Peer Support?
What's more important than technicalities is practice and culture. You can have a culture of Peer Support which is quite successful. However, most legitimacy and support for any program comes when it is institutionalized and formalized. This means developing a policy and maybe SOPs.
It means expectations of vetted team members with training. It means no tolerance for a breach in trust. This can demolish your entire program. For my department it takes nominations and adhering to simple routine asks (engagement and training for the team).
In sum, Peer Support is imperative to first responders. This job is too heavy to go it alone, and peer support (unlike traditional mental health support) can be immediate and removes many conventional barriers toward formal treatment. I don't have to meet someone, go through scheduling and insurance.. I can just hit up my buddy.
Talking to my friend or colleague can be instrumental. It might not be the solution for everything, especially when circumstances become dire. However, it can often be an entry point to referral to more technical or expansive resources (crisis line, mental health professional, in-patient treatment).
Peer Support is free, simple to implement. It can be boiled down to just "giving a damn." It's one of the easiest, most accessible and effective tools to mental and emotional health support. Talk, LISTEN, care and support.
Take care, Be well, and Stay GRITTY.