May 18, 2022

Peer Wellness Specialists at Cascadia: Perception is Key—Peer Providers and Trauma-Informed Care

By Rhea Wolf, Peer Wellness Specialist at Rockwood Respite

Rhea Wolf

Perception is key to the peer provider role. To be in this role requires me to let go of any preconceptions, judgments, or assumptions about the person I am here to support. This is especially important when it comes to striving for trauma-informed care. A mental health crisis or on-going struggles can be traumatic on their own, reverberating through the constellation of traumatic events most of us with mental health challenges have survived. This is very important to remember because we can do more harm if we don’t. When I’m working with someone, I strive to hold space for acceptance and openness, and be guided by the principles of hope, compassion, and recovery.

But my intention and perception are not enough to create a safe environment for someone undergoing a crisis and recovering from trauma. My intention and perception don’t mean anything to someone who has perhaps been traumatized by the mental health system itself. This became clear to me after being on the job only six months. A person I was supporting, who was in the midst of a very intense experience, could not see my good intentions. I thought I was offering care and support. But they felt threatened. And they ended up back in the hospital.

The incident led to a lot of soul-searching on my part. Where did I go wrong? How could I have handled the situation better? I reached out to my fellow peer providers to talk about what happened. Talked to my supervisors. Had sessions with someone from the Trauma Support Team. Talked to my therapist.

What I realized is that I had acted as though the other person knew I wanted to help, as though they could recognize my good intentions or compassionate nature. I knew that I wanted to help them, not harm them. But does my intention necessarily matter to someone who has been on the receiving end of trauma, abuse, violence, or disrespect? Not really.

To help someone in a crisis – or with any mental health challenge – I must continually challenge myself to see the other person’s point of view and to support them as they make choices that are right for them. I need to enter a space of “not-knowing,” and be patient as we work toward building mutual respect. If I project my own needs, wishes, and fears onto the person I am working with, I will not be able to build that mutual respect. And I would be denying the other person’s agency and autonomy, something that goes against the very foundations of trauma-informed care.

We are never going to completely understand what it’s like to see the world through another’s eyes. But everyone – peer providers, clinicians, administrators, leadership – can keep learning and stay aware of how much we don’t know. I think this is vital if we are attempting to offer trauma-informed care. Our approach changes based on the person we are supporting. We have to be adaptable and patient. We can’t assume anything about this human being in front of us. The moment we do that, we position ourselves in the role of authority, as if saying, “I know better than you about what you need right now.”

To be trauma-informed in the actions we take also means seeing the possibilities each person is capable of. As Ana Hristić writes in a blog post on Trauma-Informed Oregon, we must “broaden our scope of understanding beyond just ‘What happened to you?’ to also include ‘What are you capable of? What has helped you survive this long? What passions and joys make you tick?’”

I believe that peer support plays an essential role in a more humane, functional mental healthcare system, because we’ve been on the other side and faced the assumptions of others who weren’t able to see us beyond our symptoms and trauma. But each of us at Cascadia can embody Whole Healthcare by seeing each person we support as capable of strength and recovery; this is an integral part of delivering trauma-informed care.

Interested in a career that supports our community? Join our team!

You can learn more about becoming a Peer Wellness Specialist here.