Ann Marie Mac Donald
Executive Director and CEO of Hope + Me – MDAO
Whether you’re going through mental health challenges or physical illness or injury, peer support can be a powerful adjunct to treatment.
For people struggling with mental or physical illness, the ability to share their lived experience with someone who “gets it” can be a vital aid in healing and recovery. This is the core principle behind the peer support services offered through Hope and Me – The Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (Hope + Me – MDAO).
“We look at recovery as something that requires a holistic approach,” says Ann Marie Mac Donald, Executive Director and CEO of Hope + Me – MDAO. “In addition to seeing your doctor and counsellor, talking to someone who has been in a similar situation to yours in a supportive peer relationship is a beneficial first step towards recovery,” she says.
Peer support services offered to all who who need it
Hope + Me – MDAO offers a range of free services to support people of all ages across Ontario with their mental health. These include recovery programs, workplace programs and online tools, in addition to peer support.
Hope + Me – MDAO’s peer support services are offered both as informal drop-in peer support groups at various locations across Ontario (held virtually during the pandemic) and through their more structured eight-week peer recovery programs. “Peer support focuses on health and recovery rather than illness and disability and can be offered not only to people with mental health challenges but also those who may have a physical illness or injury, such as cancer, diabetes or a concussion, and even their family members and friends who are caring for them,” says Mac Donald.
Though no two people experience a situation the same way, the lived experience is the commonality that can build connection and trust between the peer support worker and the peer. “When people feel that empathy, connection and trust with their peer, they’re more inclined to feel comfortable talking about their past traumas or what’s upsetting them, and maybe even share something they’ve never told anyone before, and then take that critical next step through their own self-determination to get the help they need,” says Mac Donald.
When people have gone through an illness or traumatic event and come out on the other side, they often want to give back and help others going through something similar.
Rigorous peer support training program offered by Hope + Me – MDAO
In addition to peer support services, Hope + Me – MDAO’s offers peer support training. “When people have gone through an illness or traumatic event and come out on the other side, they often want to give back and help others going through something similar,” says Mac Donald.
But it’s not a simple matter of signing up and connecting with a peer. Hope + Me – MDAO’s peer support training comprises 52 hours of intense training and covers topics like trauma, boundaries, and the importance of relationships. It also includes an apprenticeship. “We have the trained peers stay with us where they have the opportunity to shadow other peers and utilize the skills on a continual basis in a Community of Practice,” says Mac Donald.
The peer support training program also ensures that the trained candidates are coming from a place of wellness when offering support. “Once you’re trained and part of the Community of Practice, the ability to support yourself is really important,” says Mac Donald. “We are very much about intentional sharing, so there’s a lot of rigour around that, ensuring that people who want to give back are at a healthy place to be able to do that,” she says.
Whether you’re seeking support for yourself or want to give back as a peer support worker, Hope + Me – MDAO’s peers support community provides a safe space to share experiences, overcome isolation, and find and give hope.
Overcoming past trauma through Hope + Me – MDAO
Delphine experienced trauma from a very young age. By the time she was nine, depression had set in. “I remember lying in my bed for days and crying,” she says. She told her mom something was wrong but never actually discussed her condition until she started therapy in her early twenties. After going to many different doctors and therapists she was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder.
The doctors tried various methods of treatment. Some worked, others made her feel worse. She spent considerable energy putting up the “all is well” façade. Delphine’s illness prevented her from being able to hold down a long-term full-time job, so she eventually settled on temp work because it offered her a way to hide her unwellness.
At one of the darkest periods of her life, Delphine attended her first peer group meeting at Hope + Me – MDAO. “I did not have to disclose my diagnosis and felt connected and heard for the first time, even though I talked about some of my most difficult experiences,” says Delphine. “Being with peers that heard my voice and could relate with my experiences was so healing because people who fight to stay well can be more empathetic and supportive than those who have not experienced it,” she says.
Hope + Me – MDAO’s peer support helps Delphine to feel less alone, allowing her to put her therapy work into everyday practice. “I can discover self-care, compassion, and understanding in a supportive environment with my peers because they get it.”