Mental Health Support
14 Jan 2022

Peer support – when people use their own experience to help others – is gaining momentum in mental health services. New research explores how peer support workers define and experience wellbeing as part of their recovery journey. 

Peer support workers in the NHS emphasise the importance of doing things, such as exercise, playing music and doing paid work, to maintain their wellbeing and describe their wellbeing as a continuous journey over an extended period of time. 

These are the key findings from new research conducted by Jenny Edge from the Pathfinder Clinical Service at the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and Susan Wheatley at the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Brighton. The researchers’ aim was to explore how wellbeing is experienced by people with lived experience of mental health issues who are in recovery and now work as peer support workers supporting others experiencing mental health problems. 

The study used a qualitative approach and involved semi-structured interviews with peer workers employed in an NHS mental health trust. Participants were encouraged to explore in detail the aspects of wellbeing that were important to them and to expand on significant themes as they arose. 

There were two major themes that emerged from the research:  

  • Peer support workers described their wellbeing in terms of a journey over time that followed an unpredictable path and in which they encountered both challenges and triumphs. This finding fits in with a shift in understanding about what constitutes “recovery” in mental health circles – from the idea that a person reaches a “final destination” to an emphasis on a person’s subjective experience of a recovery journey that is ongoing and doesn’t involve a return to “normal”. 

  • They understood their wellbeing in terms of engagement in occupations or activities, highlighting the importance of their ability to engage in activity with purpose as a key indicator of their wellbeing. 

Wellbeing and the recovery journey 

Participants’ experience of wellbeing occurred over a long period of time and involved changes in movement and position in terms of their self-belief and capacity to recover. Interviewees reported that improvements in their wellbeing took tenacity and determination to achieve with one participant noting: “From being suicidally depressed and not able to go out of the house and now being able to [go] back to a bigger world if you like... it has taken six years to get to this stage.” 

All the interviewees described developing greater self-awareness and said that this had a significant and positive impact on their wellbeing and progress in recovery, for example, understanding better their own responses and potential triggers. This process also involved regaining or relearning trust in themselves and their ability to overcome obstacles. 

Hope was also a big theme among interviewees who reflected on the challenge of maintaining hope in their ability to recover and how important this was for their sense of wellbeing. “I find hope really important for my mental wellbeing,” said one participant. Some participants looked back to when they had little sense of a future and expressed a contrast between this feeling and their hope for a positive future and their potential for recovery going forward. Others appeared to experience the future as a frightening prospect, expressing fears that they may not be able to continue a path towards recovery and improved wellbeing. 

Wellbeing and meaningful activity 

All the participants explored and understood their experience of wellbeing through the things they do, including their work as peer support workers in the NHS. For all of them, how much they did or didn’t engage in these activities was a key indicator with which they judged their own wellbeing. 

Interests, such as music and exercise, had a positive effect on wellbeing, although participants also noted how reduced wellbeing could negatively impact their ability to engage in these activities. One participant noted that “when I’m doing exercise, the core system starts behaving, my mind starts behaving and I start to get some pleasure, joy and happiness.” 

The ability to connect with others also had a big impact on participant wellbeing. This included other people, as well as pets. Meanwhile participants noted the really positive impact that having paid work had on their wellbeing with one interviewee noting: “What really helps me is getting out, doing things, meeting people and feeling I am doing something useful.” Many noted that their work as peer support workers, helping others who were experiencing mental health problems, had been extremely positive with one participant noting: “As a peer support worker and recovery college trainer, I haven’t had a day off sick, which is amazing.” 

If you are struggling with your mental health and need to reach out for help, you can find local sources of support on this website. Many of the support organisations involved in the Pathfinder alliance have opportunities to volunteer and work as peer support workers. 

See West Sussex Mind’s latest video about its peer support workers, working in different services across the organisation. 


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