It is known that individuals with a mental illness benefit from receiving social support via their recovering peers. However, less is documented about the benefits to professional peers providing support to others. The study’s setting is a peer support program in a community hospital in the northeastern U.S. Peer counselors, who are individuals with a history of mental health challenges, were hired to provide services in the emergency room, inpatient units, and a day program. These professional peers work alongside other mental health staff including psychiatrists, social workers, and nurses. In this study, we asked, “What kinds of benefits do peer workers receive from their employment in mental health positions?” By understanding the benefits experienced by professional peers, other types of settings and employment opportunities can be improved for people with mental illness to thrive in their vocation. Additionally, job positions can be created to employ more individuals with psychiatric disabilities.
In this qualitative case study, using purposive sampling, we interviewed two program administrators and seven peer counselors providing mental health assistance within a hospital to discover how employment is helpful for maintaining one’s mental health. Peer workers were asked questions based on a semi-structured interview guide and prompted by the researchers to elaborate on the benefits of their work. The researchers used combined inductive and deductive coding to enumerate the ways peer workers were affected by their employment. Consensus among three researchers increased dependability and subsequent meetings with the peers used member checking to strengthen the confirmability of the data.
The peers, as well as the program administrators, described past experiences with one or more mental health symptoms: depression, anxiety, or psychotic disorders. Major findings encompassed normalization and visibility of mental health, self-empowerment, and community contribution. Peers expressed ease in maintaining their mental health due to its salience in their work and the ability to talk openly about symptoms without fear of losing their job. The peers and peer supervisors reported feeling pride, purpose, and fulfillment from their work. Through their work the peers felt their lived experiences were valued and they were giving back by contributing to society and their local community’s well-being.
Conclusions and Implications
Individuals with disabilities employed in peer work benefit from their jobs in multiple ways, enabling them to maintain their mental health. Although these job positions are rare, this study demonstrates the feasibility of professional peer positions that provide meaningful work for individuals with disabilities who might otherwise struggle to find employment. To expand these work opportunities, organizations, particularly those involved with mental health or disabilities, should consider creating jobs for people who have experienced mental health symptoms, especially in positions where they can help other people with mental illness. Social workers can be key advocates for helping individuals with disability find satisfying work and encourage employers to create positions for this community. Future research will examine the social relationships that foster workplace settings conducive to employing individuals with a disability.