Pam Spurvey is no different than you or I. She has a past—we all do—but hers just happens to be out there for everyone to see. That’s because Pam is a peer support worker, and uses her lived experience as a tool to connect to others with pasts like her own, but who aren’t yet as far along on their paths to healing.
It’s our job to walk beside each person who’s struggling until they’re walking ahead of us. We get to watch them shine; that’s the best part.
Pam currently holds roles at the Edmonton Drug Treatment Court—as a mentor—the Salvation Army—as a House Operator, at CEASE—as a Financial Literacy instructor—and at Alberta Health Services (AHS), as a Peer Support worker. In fact, Pam was the first Peer Support Worker hired at Alberta Health Services back in 2015.
At AHS she was formerly part of the Inner City Support Team, where her work brought her in contact with many organizations—she provided support to 6 Edmonton agencies: WEAC, Bissell, Boyle Street, George Spady, Hope Mission, and Boyle McCauley. She now works to support vulnerable populations across Edmonton as part of the Young Adult and Cross Level team. For every position she serves in, she wears a slightly different hat. Being a peer support worker is not a conventional role, and often each peer has to define it for themselves. Every peer “comes with their own journey,” Pam says.
Pam’s journey started 25 years ago, and didn’t always seem like it would have the positive ending that she now shares with her clients. Pam had a rough upbringing: her home was often a place of violence, and her mother struggled with alcoholism and a traumatic past of her own. As a child, Pam was regularly left to fend for herself in the city—her mother was a sex worker—until she was put in a foster home at 10 years old.
Though she returned to her newly sober mother 3 years later, she still suffered physical and mental abuse due to what Pam recognizes now as her mother’s undiagnosed mental illness. Pulled from school where she was thriving, Pam became depressed, anxious, and under the hold of an eating disorder. She began drinking and hanging out with the same type of people her mother did. “I chose a path of destruction. I finally found something to numb all my pain.”
This first cycle ended with Pam as a young mom at 17. Stability seemed out of her grasp, but she found success in a new job and a new relationship. Over the next many years, this cycle repeated itself, with Pam finding stability at a workplace or at school, only to get caught up in a chaotic lifestyle once again. She reached the end of her line in 2006, when—addicted to crystal meth and dealing drugs from her home —she was arrested for drug trafficking in Camrose. She lost her five children soon after.
More than anything else, the voice inside Pam’s head judging herself was the worst: “I couldn’t stand who I’d become.” Fortunately, her lawyer connected her to the Edmonton Drug Treatment Program, a restorative justice program for people who committed crimes to support a drug habit. Through a variety of treatment programs, Pam took responsibility for her past; she was able to move past her shame and even get her children back.
Today, Pam has a strong understanding of her own mental health issues and is committed to giving her children the space and respect they need to be healthy alongside her. “The cycle of poverty and trauma will not continue with my children.”
The Peer Approach
At the end of the day, Pam’s lived experience helps her connect to the individuals she supports, but it is her ability to educate herself about the resources the system has to offer, and her desire to see a service from the eyes of each individual that make her good at her job.
In the past it was difficult for me to find health care professionals with the necessary knowledge and compassion to help me. I try to give people everything I didn’t have so they can become okay with who they are sooner and learn to get better on their own.
Peers specialize in what Pam calls a “warm hand-off;” they take a hands-on approach to supporting individuals to identify the support they need and, when they are comfortable, the peer passes them on to someone who can fulfill their more clinical needs.
Peer support is all about empowerment. Pam supports an individual’s personal goals. It is not the peer’s job to say no to the individual’s goals or to tell them that they’re out of reach. The peer simply asks the individual what their goal is, looks at it broadly, and works alongside them to break it into smaller pieces so the individual can come to their own conclusion about the attainability of a goal, and then make realistic choices.
The aim is not to do an individual’s work for them and foster dependence; instead, Pam teaches them to use the supports around them. That’s why peers don’t just drive individuals to services or go to every appointment with them; they teach them to use the bus, or emotionally prepare them for a trip to a therapist on their own.
One of the most important aspects of her job is explaining the care pathway in a way that makes sense to each person she supports. Pam sits with each individual and explains why they have to complete forms, among other things. For someone who has negative experiences with the system, forms remind them of other institutions: hospitalization, or even jail. And to someone who has literacy issues, forms can mean anxiety and shame. But fulfilling this necessary step doesn’t have to be re-traumatizing.
Pam works with individuals so they understand the steps through the eyes of both the service workers and her own after years struggling to navigate the same system—the goal of each part of the process is simply to provide them good care. Peer support thus alleviates unnecessary stress from receiving healthcare.
Why is peer support so important? Because, says Pam, building relationships is key to motivating people to continue to get help. Emotional support dispels negative emotions that may accompany a visit to a therapist’s office. And these relationships take time.
“There is always a ‘why’ that explains a person’s difficulty getting help for their addiction or illness,” Pam explains. For example, the fear of being judged, or appointments scheduled for the morning being an unrealistic expectation for someone who is likely abusing substances in the evenings. “I use my past experience to help uncover the ‘why’ and support them as they overcome it.”
Being a peer is a lot of work. It’s a hard job. “People want to push you away and show you that you’re ‘like everyone else.’ And you’ve got to prove them wrong.” Pam’s most important task is to build trust by listening and finding a way to be relatable, without undermining an individual’s personal journey.
“You’ve got to know when to bring in your story. It’s not about my journey, it’s about their journey.”
Peers must also find a way to build a relationship with the community. “The thing I’m most proud of,” muses Pam, “is my success at changing the dynamics of the typical relationship between AHS and the front line agencies I have supported.” Pam expanded existing relationships through her willingness to reach out, rather than hanging back in an office. “The very first day I visited each agency, I introduced myself and asked to see where the community members hang out. I helped hand out coffee and warm clothes. I built resources so I could be more effective in my role.” At first, the agencies’ staff were surprised, but now Pam has strong ties that allow her to match individuals with the right resources.
What does Pam find most challenging about being a peer support worker? Peer support, though a role that is expanding in health care, is still new. Not everyone understands what it is yet. “There’s still no clear definition of a peer; it’s not an official discipline. What I wish people understood more is that I’m qualified to do my job, even if I don’t have a PHD or a degree in psychology. I live in my trauma every day. Peer support workers have overcome a lot, and people should give us some credit.”
Pam independently sought out her training and accreditation as a Peer Support Worker, and she hopes to someday be a Peer Support Mentor so she can teach others to learn to use their lived experience as a tool. Last month, she received the True Grit Award from the Lieutenant Governor’s Circle on Mental Health and Addiction, for her work strengthening programs and services for addiction and mental health. She was joined by her children, and together they all got to celebrate how far she’s come.
It is a peer’s job to move someone from hopelessness to hope. To show each individual that they too have a spark that they’ve just forgotten how to ignite. Pam now sees her past as a gift, one that she’s able to share with others until they’re ready to manage on their own. As the impact of peer support workers grows more apparent, it is our duty to to support them so that our system can be stronger and our patients happier.
For more information on Peer Support, visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website.