Mental health and addictions professionals are highly-trained, compassionate people. But sometimes clients yearn to speak to someone who can really understand what they’re going through – enter, peer supporters.
Peer supporters are members of the general public who have shared experiences in common with the individuals they support. In the area of mental health and addictions, peer supporters have a lived experience with a mental illness and/or addiction and they volunteer to work alongside mental health and addictions professionals providing support to Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) clients.
The SHA’s Mental Health and Addiction Services in Saskatoon has 10 peer supporters who volunteer to assist with clients.
Peer supporters are sometimes better able to empathize with a client as they have been through similar experiences. Many peer supporters may choose to complete Certified Peer Support (CPS) training to become certified.
“Certified Peer Supports go through training but primarily our knowledge comes from our own lived experience, not from a textbook,” said Tracey Mitchell, Peer Support Mentor with SHA.
Mitchell became a CPS in 2015 and recently advanced her credentials, becoming a CPS Mentor earlier this year. She oversees peer support volunteers at the McKerracher Centre in Saskatoon.
“Certification helps to increase our confidence and it adds credibility to our work.”
What is Peer Support?
Over the past decade, the discipline of peer support has experienced significant growth. In 2010, the Mental Health Commission of Canada emphasized the importance of peer support, recommending that it be offered everywhere that mental health services are offered.
Peer Support Canada emerged about three years later and developed a process for certifying peer supporters and peer support mentors. The organization defines peer support as “emotional and practical support between two people who share a common experience, such as a mental health challenge or illness. A peer supporter has lived through that similar experience, and is trained to support others.”
Allan Zabraczki, who supports SHA clients in Saskatoon, is proud to have recently completed his certification.
“It is solid, formal recognition that the work I do has value. I worked hard to get this,” said Zabraczki, as he hangs his certificate to his wall.
Zabraczki, Mitchell and Rick Newell have all been certified through Peer Support Canada.
Bruce Cain in Saskatoon, and Tanya Condo in Regina are currently in the process of getting their certifications as well, while other peer supporters in the province are expected to go through the process soon.
Peer Supporters (from left): Bruce Cain, Rick Newell, Allan Zabraczki, and Tracey Mitchell
To become certified, one must complete a detailed application, a knowledge assessment exam and a practicum component. The process can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years to complete.
Cain, Newell, and Zabraczki all agree that the self-assessment component involved in their certification was difficult but worthwhile.
“My practicum mentor pointed out the competencies I was already practicing in my peer support and that helped me to see where I was bringing value more clearly,” said Cain.
“I learned to listen with more empathy and hope than I had before I started training,” said Zabraczki.
“I learned and fully believe that the peer and I have a unique and honest connection based upon our shared experiences with having mental illness,” said Newell. “I learned that with self-determination, the peer can manage and control their recovery.”
The benefits of shared experience
Tracey Kushniruk, Manager of Residential and McKerracher Recovery Services, has seen the benefits peer support has provided to clients.
“The value of a relatable, shared, lived experience is something that seemed to be missing from overall services. It a component of health care that can be difficult to teach,” said Kushniruk.
Cain sees peer support as an important complement to clinical care.
“It’s important to be an advocate, to give value to the lived experience perspective alongside the professionals; and clients might find a peer to be more relatable. Also, it adds a dimension of hope. Clients may see us and be inspired by our own recoveries which can really motivate them,” he said.
As peer support grows across the province, the number of certified peer supporters is expected to grow as well.
“It feels like we are really in on the ground floor of something special, something that could help restore hope for recovery for a lot of people. Certification is an important step along the way,” said Mitchell.
For more information on peer support in Saskatchewan, please contact Tracey Mitchell at 306-655-4548 or
firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Peer Support Canada, please visit