AHS's Peer Support Workers Are Breaking New Ground in Addictions and Mental Health Care

Pamela Spurvey isn't a Psychiatrist, a Psychologist or Neuroscientist, but she is a pioneer in the field of addictions and mental health.

01 September 2019

Pamela Spurvey isn't a Psychiatrist, a Psychologist or Neuroscientist, but she is a pioneer in the field of addictions and mental health.

In 2015, Spurvey was hired by Alberta Health Services (AHS) as the very first Peer Support Worker in the Edmonton Zone.

By harnessing the knowledge, insights and empathy she gained from her own past struggles with addictions and mental health, Spurvey now applies her skills on a full-time basis supporting others who are battling similar demons of their own.

"Pam was the very first Peer Support Worker hired as an employee of AHS, and we now have 26 such workers, most of them working full-time, in the Edmonton Zone," says Michelle Knox, AHS Program Manager for Housing and Recovery Supports.

The effectiveness of the Peer Support Worker program is now the subject of a study by Dr. Rabab Ahmed, Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, and Reham Shalaby, a Master's student in the Department of Psychiatry's Graduate Program (see separate story).

The study - "Enhancing peer support experience for patients discharged from acute psychiatric care: A randomized controlled pilot trial" - is being conducted under the supervision of Dr. Vincent Agyapong, Clinical Professor and Director, Residents Quality Improvement Projects, Department of Psychiatry, and AHS Edmonton Zone Clinical Section Chief, Community Mental Health.

"AHS felt it was very important to have Pam's voice and those of other Peer Support Workers integrated on our teams, and we now have Peer Support Workers on our Housing Outreach Teams, our Recovery Support Teams, our Assertive Community Treatment Teams, and on our Inner City Teams," Knox explains.

Spurvey is currently part of the iOAT (Injectible Opioid Agonist Treatment) Team, which works out of AHS's Forensic Assessment & Community Services (FACS) office on 106 Street.

The recently opened Addiction & Mental Health Access 24/7 site at Anderson Hall, adjacent to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, and AHS's Young Adult Treatment Program also include Peer Support Workers. The Acute Inpatient Psychiatry Units at local hospitals are among the few places within AHS Addiction and Mental Health where Peer Support Workers don't yet play a role.

The day-to-day tasks that Peer Support Workers perform vary widely, ranging from budgeting assistance to shepherding clients to medical appointments and support programs to assisting them with housing and basic transportation. Sometimes it's as simple as going for a walk or a coffee, and lending a sympathetic ear to a client in crisis.

"It's about supporting people and reconnecting them in life. Many homeless people don't have any I.D. and haven't been housed for a long time, so we use our lived experience to create trust and hope. We provide a bridge into the system and into various programs," says Spurvey, who was recently certified as a qualified Peer Support Worker by Peer Support Canada.

"I remember when I was accessing the system how disconnected services could be, and how difficult it was navigating alone while I was struggling with my own mental health and addictions issues. Now we have Peer Support Workers walking alongside people in need, helping them to navigate the system, easing their sense of anxiety and creating friendship. That's a huge plus."

One of her clients hadn't visited a dentist in 10 years, says Spurvey. Since he felt paralyzed and unable to overcome his fear of going, she went with him until he was able to visit the dentist on his own.

"It's also about socialization. I'm Indigenous, so helping people reconnect with their culture by smudging or going to ceremonies is really important as well. I took someone to pow wow recently at Poundmaker's Lodge in St. Albert, and he was overwhelmed. He said 'Thanks so much for taking me, it feels wonderful just to hear the drums again.' So it's about helping people rediscover their own resiliency and empowering them."

Since Peer Support Workers are embedded in multidisciplinary teams, they work alongside a variety of mental health professionals, including Occupational Therapists, Social Workers, Psychologists and Recreational Therapists. "They value our opinions as part of the client's care plan, so we're now fully integrated into the decision-making process," says Spurvey.

The amount and duration of contact Peer Support Workers have with clients also varies widely. If they're part of a housing team at a community shelter, they may see their clients daily. In other situations, contact may only be once or twice a month.

So, now that the Peer Support Workers program is well established, where does AHS plan to take it from here?

"Well, we've talked about having an inpatient presence on our Acute Psychiatric Units, where there are no Peer Support Workers now. To me that makes sense. I'd also like to have a casual pool developed so we can start providing some training early on," says Knox.

"We're also really excited about the study that has been undertaken by Dr. Ahmed and Reham Shelaby from the Department of Psychiatry. We're hoping it will demonstrate the need and the benefits of having Peer Support Workers."