The power of peer workers in alcohol and other drug treatment programs
Ella Stott was sitting in north west drug rehabilitation facility Serenity House — ‘ticking the boxes’, she admits, to regain custody of her children — when a peer worker changed her life.
They’d noticed she wasn’t engaging, so approached her to share that they’d been a client of the service three years ago. It made an instant impression. “Honestly, in that moment, I got goosebumps,” Ella remembers. “I’ve been surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of drug users that have never been able to recover, and other people who have lost their kids, and they’ve never got them back. “I just didn’t believe in recovery until I met somebody that did it, but hearing his story made me think to myself, maybe I can get better.”
And in time, she did. Ella got her health, then her children back, and then, with some encouragement from her Youth, Family and Community Connections counsellor, decided to sign up for peer worker training herself. The training came about after Primary Health Tasmania partnered with the Drug Education Network, Holyoake Tasmania, Salvation Army, Youth, Family and Community Connections and the Tasmanian Community Fund to develop a project designed to build the capacity of the local alcohol and other drug sector to engage, support, and value peer workers as an essential element of the workforce.
What is an alcohol and other drug peer worker?
In this context, a peer worker is an employee with lived experience of substance use who, through a designated role in a workplace, supports the wellbeing of clients with alcohol and other drug use issues.
For Ella, completing the peer worker training course with the Drug Education Network meant she could go on to offer her powerful lived experience perspective to the Youth, Family and Community Connections team, clients, and the broader community services sector. Before long, she even found herself back at Serenity House, filling a similar peer worker role as the man who inspired her change. “I explained to the people there that I’ve been to this service — I’ve been here, scared and vulnerable — and the engagement level completely changed,” the 30-year-old Penguin local remembers. “It was a really powerful moment for me where I thought, I can really make a difference here.”
The Youth, Family and Community Connections counsellor Ella was accompanying on the visit, Dave Burger, agrees there was a palpable shift in the room when Ella divulged her personal experience at the City Mission service. “They completely zeroed in,” he says. It’s this ability to complement and strengthen people’s engagement — often at critical junctures in their lives — that makes peer workers such a huge asset to a drug and alcohol support service. “I’ve seen it — there was a lady once in a Burnie recovery group I run, listening to Ella speak, and she was just soaking it up like a sponge,” Dave says. “I could tell you all these insightful things, and if you’re at a certain point in your journey, it would be of some use to you. But I haven’t walked the same road as Ella. “So having her walk in and go, ‘Oh I remember those days, I remember how hard that was’, (is) clearly so empowering.”
What is the evidence to support the use of alcohol and other drug peer workers?
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that peer workers can have a powerful and significant impact in the alcohol and other drug sector, Drug Education Network educator Maria Duggan says. She says a systematic review evaluating the use of peer support workers reported significant decreases in substance use and improved ‘recovery capital’ (measuring things like housing stability, self-care, independence, and health management) for individuals who used peer support services. Other research has suggested that peer support during service provision can improve clients’ post-treatment experiences, reducing the likelihood of ‘relapse’ and fostering a sense of community connectedness.
“There appears to be growing momentum and interest in developing a thriving alcohol and drug peer workforce in Tasmania,” Maria says. “The first group of peer workers to complete the peer work training program have begun working in roles at the Salvation Army, Holyoake Tasmania and Youth, Family and Community Connections in April this year, and we’re already getting great feedback from clients about their positive impact.”
As one client reflected, the peer worker could offer relatable insights about the emotional challenges of alcohol and drug dependence, even if the particulars of their personal experience were different.
“It made me really think more about how to handle certain things differently when faced with certain problems, “another client said of the experience of working with Ella. “It really makes a difference to have more than one type of feedback during sessions, and I felt like I walked out with a lot more to be proud of within myself.”
What’s involved in the peer worker training project?
Through the peer worker project, trainees have gained an understanding of topics such as:
- Active listening
- Understanding and establishing boundaries
- How to work within a multidisciplinary team
- Working with diverse client groups
- The importance of trauma-informed practices.
To help them gain this knowledge, a range of guest speakers were engaged from organisations such as:
- Working it Out
- Kutalayna Health
- Kentish Regional Clinic
- Holyoake Tasmania
- Salvation Army
- Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council Tasmania
- Youth, Family and Community Connections.
Want to know more? Go to – www.den.org.au/projects/atod-peer-workforce-project
 Why Tasmania Needs an Alcohol and Other Drug Peer Workforce, Drug Education Network, April 2020
This article first appeared in Issue 15 of Primary Health Tasmania’s Primary Health Matters newsletter, which is available online at primaryhealthtas.com.au. Reproduced with permission.