Peer support PDA: so much more than the latest training course

22nd July 2014

A successful pilot of the first ever Scottish Personal Development Award (PDA) in Mental Health Peer Support was recently completed at Edinburgh College.

Quote graphicWith the award now available to training providers it seemed an opportune time to explore what this new qualification can bring to Scotland’s mental health landscape.

SRN’s Christine Muir spoke with a range of stakeholders who shared their insights into the benefits of supporting the PDA: three organisations at varying stages of developing award courses; mental health charity SAMH, which employs peer workers; and one of the pilot PDA co-facilitators.

Leading the way: Why the PDA matters to course providers

Mental Health Practitioner Andreja McLean is currently leading the delivery of the PDA as part of the Perth-based Mindspace Recovery College programme. Along with Andreja, Duncan Davidson, a Peer Support Worker from Dundee Community Mental Health Team East, facilitates the course with a view to potentially rolling it out in Dundee.

Andreja firmly believes that peer support is “a very important part of any mental health service”. There was early demand for training in this field: “People were passionate about being peer mentors and they wanted to learn more..”

Quote graphicMindspace are committed to developing paid work for their PDA graduates. They have some capacity to employ peer mentors within the organisation but are also sourcing opportunities within other services and organisations. To support this they have created a Peer Mentor Hub to act as a platform from which to promote the role. There will also be opportunities for graduates to run future PDA courses. As Duncan comments: “Some of the skills, abilities and experience of participants is such that there is no reason why they cannot become assessors and verifiers themselves. It has the potential to really grow in that kind of way”.

Mindspace are also in talks with NHS Tayside to explore how the PDA could be delivered more widely across Perth & Kinross.

Joe Pamphilon is the Senior Project Worker with the CLEAR Peer Support Project (Health in Mind) based at The Orchard Centre in Midlothian. He co-delivers the PDA to people with lived experience of substance use/addictions and mental health problems as part of a peer support volunteer training programme. Of the qualification Joe says: “We thought it would be just a brilliant thing to be able to recognise the value that the peers are bringing to the services and to have an actual SQA approved qualification.”

Quote graphicJoe feels that the PDA is not only a great thing for volunteers to add to their C.V., but potentially a stepping stone to future employment opportunities (internally and externally) and a pathway to more training and further education.

Maria Naranjo is Managing Director of the Minds Well social enterprise, which provides a range of learning opportunities to improve mental health and wellbeing. They are currently waiting for SQA approval to run the course. When asked why she was interested in delivering the PDA, Maria said: “[It] will be a step forward for volunteers at the organisation to make them more employable. Minds Well want to provide support to people to take on peer support roles.”

Maria believes the peer support role is a chance to harness lived experience and use it at a community level; reaching those who do not access mental health services. As a social enterprise, Minds Well are taking a slightly different approach to helping graduates develop their roles after completing the PDA: “We want to put people through the qualification with a view to supporting them to become social entrepreneurs and develop their own business as part of a cooperative.”

Improving peer worker recognition and credibility

Quote graphicWhen speaking with people it became very apparent that the PDA was already recognised as more than just a stand-alone training tool. It was generally felt that the qualification is an important step towards increasing the recognition and credibility of a role that many believe is often undervalued by services, employers and practitioners.

As Joe notes, having the lived experience of peer workers valued by a recognised institution “adds more legitimacy for people.”

SAMH, in partnership with North Lanarkshire Council, developed the Expeerience Counts peer support service.

Mark Hall, from SAMH, believes that the PDA supports people to feel more professional about their role. He also notes that having a recognised qualification brought with it academic weight that “gives more credibility to the role.” Andreja feels too that “services want some kind of qualification. Something that gives the role extra value.”

A chance for consistency

The PDA has the potential to play a key regulatory role, providing a central point of reference or benchmark for organisations to use to improve and share practice. Duncan comments: “Peer support is often done in different ways in different places so it is great to have something that delivers a core level of understanding of the fundamentals of recovery and peer support ..”

Quote graphicHe continues: “It provides clarification as people get to work alongside other peer support workers. It just means people are trying to do things the same way and be on the same page.”

Mark echoes this sentiment: “The PDA brings added dimension and depth to the existing framework. Standardises practises and makes people think more about their role.”

What’s in it for me? Why the PDA matters for peer workers

Everyone I spoke with could see the added value the PDA brings to existing peer support training. Responses were also positive about the relevance of the qualification for both existing peer support workers and those new to the role.

Jim Campbell, one of the co-facilitators on the pilot course at Edinburgh College, recognises the potential mixture of different levels of experience as an opportunity rather than a barrier: “The beauty of the PDA is that it can also bring together people at varying stages of their peer support journey to learn from each other which ties in with the whole concept of peer support”. For Jim, the course allows “like-minded people to get together over a period of time to: build connections, share experiences, learn from each other and provide support to each other.”

Quote graphicFor those new to peer working the course has been designed to ‘equip candidates with the knowledge, skills and values which are necessary to carry out this role.’ A large part of this is building participants’ confidence and, as Maria, notes, “Give them the tools…to harness the power of lived experience to educate others and support mental health recovery.”

For those already in peer support worker roles this is a chance to not only gain a recognised qualification but to refresh practice and take time to reflect. Duncan Davidson – a practising peer support worker over 6 years – says: “For developing and trying to make my job better I have found going through that process of PDA really good”. For Andreja, “Knowledge is never finite and we are always learning from others.” The PDA is, she says, “a chance to step outside your own experience and take on other learning.”

You can read more about the experiences of two practicing peer workers who took part in the pilot PDA course here.

A positive start

As with any new venture, challenges can occur along the way. On the pilot PDA some have already been identified and, indeed, resolved. What struck me when speaking to people was the high degree of interest shown in the experiences of others on the same journey. This appetite to share good practice, along with ongoing support from SQA and SRN, should make dealing with teething problems an easier process.

The early positive response to the PDA is greatly encouraging. SRN believes that it will continue to grow as more people, passionate about the value of peer support, engage with the course. As Joe sums it up nicely:

“…peer support is real and it is happening and it is going to be bigger and bigger as we move into the future, so pay attention.”


For more information from the organisations featured in this article contact:

Andreja McLean, Mental Health Practitioner, Mindspace: 01738 639 657 Mindspace are currently taking applications for their August 2014 PDA in Mental Health Peer Support.

Joe Pamphilon, Senior Project Worker, CLEAR Project: 0131 663 1616

Maria Naranjo, Chief Executive Officer, Minds Well: 0843 289 7081