Facing Mental Health Together

For someone who is struggling with mental illness or addiction, knowing there’s someone like Lauralee in their corner can help them feel like they’re not alone.

Says peer support worker Lauralee, “It can be really hard for some people to access the health system, whether it be because of anxiety or due to a past experience where they lost trust in the health system.”

That’s why her role was created at Access 24/7. 

Lauralee’s work as a peer is important because sometimes people in the community want to talk to someone with whom they feel they can be open, based on a shared understanding. It can help to overcome emotional barriers that prevent people from engaging with support.

Peer support workers draw on their lived experience, rather than clinical training, to build a connection with individuals who are trying to access addiction or mental health services.

As a third-generation residential school survivor, with past experience of abuse and addiction, Lauralee struggled for a long time. When individuals walk into the clinic, she can understand the difficult time they’re going through, because she’s been there, too.

“I get it, I can put myself in their shoes. I remember that feeling, and understand what they might be feeling.”

Being a peer looks different every day. Lauralee usually first meets clients in the waiting room in Access 24/7. Sometimes she just heads there to welcome people and provide a warm first point of contact. She asks them about their day, what’s going on in their life, or just congratulates them for making it in that day.

Sometimes, the team at the clinic asks her to participate when they feel a peer would improve someone’s experience. “If someone is having a particularly difficult time, if I’m not downstairs already, someone from the team will call me and let me know that someone is coming in and they’re struggling. I’ll go down and ask them if they’d like to talk, or if they’d like to wait with me in another room until they’re able to see a mental health therapist or doctor.”

She will even offer to sit with clients during their therapist appointments if they’re worried. Even though they don’t know her well yet, Lauralee finds it makes clients feel better knowing they don’t have to be alone and that someone is on their side.

“Sometimes when you’re in a mindset of you’re not doing well, and things are kind of gloomy around you, it can be intimidating seeing a professional because it feels like there’s a power differential.” 

For clients who call Access 24/7 and speak to a mental health therapist, the team may determine a peer support worker will benefit them. Lauralee can meet them at their home, or for coffee somewhere in the community. 

From there, she speaks to them and begins to build a relationship. She helps them identify goals and suggests resources or strategies to meet them, a little at a time. “We use supportive listening, guidance, and coping strategies to help the clients be able to work their way through their emotions while being out in the community.

Earlier this year, Lauralee spent time with a client who had difficulty leaving the house. She scheduled time to go for walks around the neighbourhood, or  just stepping a few feet outside their door. Gradually they moved on to taking a taxi to a doctor’s appointment together. The day she was scheduled to take a bus trip with her client, they called and let her know they managed a trip by themselves. This kind of progress is what drives Lauralee’s work.

“It’s really gratifying to see someone start at a point in there life where they feel that there’s no hope, and then to see them get back into the community, just living their life.”

When Lauralee thinks back to her own struggles, she acknowledges that having a peer like her around would have made recovery a lot easier.

There are moments when you feel like you’re sitting at the bottom of skid row in a black hole. You have no one. And maybe you have friends, or family that talks to you. But they don’t understand, and you just feel alone. It would have been nice for someone to have just sat there and be real with me, say ‘Look, I know this is where you’re at, I know it sucks, I know it feels like you’re never going to get out. But I’m here to hold your hand. Let’s do this.

Whether as a hand to hold, a cheerleader, advocate, or friend, Lauralee is ready to help individuals gain their confidence, and find their way to recovery. Though her time with a client may occur over a short time, their relationship has long-term impact.

“Sometimes what’s helpful with people is actually sitting in front of you and talking face to face and having that connection,” says Lauralee. “You don’t always think that you’re doing that much just by giving someone advice and help with coping strategies–you don’t think it’s that big of a deal–but at the end when they’re sitting in front of you, and they look well and happy, even, and they’re saying thank you for everything you’ve done, it’s really powerful.”

Donations from generous supporters like you make Lauralee’s role possible, through a partnership between the Mental Health Foundation and the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation. Donate today to make a difference for individuals experiencing mental health and addiction in Edmonton.