otrbristol | 6th May 2020

Accidentally taking the lead  – OTR’s Peer Representative program

Written by Laura Brain, Team Leader – Participation and Engagement at OTR

This blog is aimed at professionals to encourage creative thinking around participation, but hopefully it’s a useful read for anyone interested in getting involved in youth work or mental health work (or both!)

At OTR, our mission statement is to ‘promote and defend the mental health, rights and social position of young people’.

Therefore, we are always exploring and looking for creative ways for young people to take a lead in our work to help us shape the services OTR offers, to ensure they remain what young people need and will find useful.

In this blog, we wanted to share and celebrate the experiences of one of our participation projects – the Peer Representative program.

The reason I used ‘accidentally’ in the title is because the Peer Representative program was one of those projects that wasn’t necessarily planned, or created with any particular theory in mind. But now, three years on, it has evolved an incredible amount. It grew from a few young people’s ideas, drive and passion.

In the bigger picture at OTR, we are constantly committed to recruiting more diversity and young people into the team. We wanted peer relationships to be key in our delivery and we wanted to create a more accessible ‘front door’ into OTR. From these ideas, we started to develop a Peer Navigator program where young people help to run our drops-in (Hubs) and we train them in youth mental health.

After this, a few students wanted to use their placement year to volunteer at OTR. I still remember the first meeting I had in regards to this, and the student and I both said ‘who knows what the role will look like or how it works’. But we both agreed to work together to create something, which later became the Peer Representative programme: the happy accident. 

In the first year of the Peer Rep Programme, the volunteers were asked to be helpful and we (volunteers and myself) had many reflective discussions on what was working and what wasn’t. Then, with feedback from young people, volunteers and OTR staff members alike, the role evolved into a three day a week programme, where the volunteers support the Membership Team and choose a community that they would like to break down barriers to access mental health services.

At first, Peer Representatives shadowed the work of the Membership Team – including managing our enquiry phone line, supporting the delivery of Hubs, and working in partnership with other local agencies to deliver ‘Pop Up Shops’ (essentially taking the Hub on the road) across Bristol and South Glos, wherever young people are based. The Peer Reps then chose a project within OTR that they would like to act as a communication bridge between the project and a focus area. For example, this year we had a Peer Rep linked in with Freedom, focusing on LGBTQ+ young people in care. They developed and lead creative ways to communicate with this community; bringing LGBTQ+ themed creative art activities to every Monday Hub, ensuring the Membership Team communicated Freedom’s messages effectively, and speaking to young people who attended Freedom about the other service available to them at OTR. 

If you check out the links at the end of this blog, there are presentations and videos of our Peer Reps talking about what they have learnt from their time with OTR, and more importantly, what they want professionals to know or remember. These videos show a very committed team of young people, training as professionals, who have developed creative ways to reach out to communities, and who have helped shape OTR’s offer to these communities. 

Of course the development and delivery of this  programme has had many challenges. Within OTR, we have historically had many forms of participation, including a Board of Young Advisors, youth-led conferences and Wellfest; all with their respective successes and challenges. For me as a professional, the approach is what is useful – I saw there was a need for people to have a well supervised placement, and while these volunteers didn’t necessarily come with the usual skill-set, they did have very relevant experience of being a young person.

This is also one of the biggest challenges that we had to overcome, and I often feel a thin line that I walk. These volunteers are of adult age, but still young enough to feasibly use the OTR service. They do not have the skills or expertise of trained professionals; often they have not even worked in this field or have very limited training. Whilst this can be useful, as they can still provide a young person’s perspective in an interview, in this context they are staff members within an OTR team. This impacts boundaries, professionalism and relationships with other teams. We have debated, in a professional capacity, should they be allowed to attend interviews? It would help give a young person’s perspective, after all. Should they be allowed to attend the OTR Christmas party? Should they be allowed to lead their own Pop-Up Shops? In these situations, it is important to protect them from where they are coming from – they are people in a professional training role leading in the voice of young people. 

There are many other challenges that the videos references too, including supervision and managing individual wellbeing. But if you take anything from this blog, is that participation is all about trial and error – what works today may not work in six months, and it is about doing rather than planning. It is the act of experimenting with young people to find how we best use their voice to guide what we do.