What is a Peer Support Worker?

July 10, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

Peer support workers play an essential role in supporting people with substance use related challenges.

They offer judgement-free care and personal connection for people experiencing substance use challenges and who may feel isolated and vulnerable. They have in-depth, first-hand knowledge of harm reduction, treatment and recovery services, and they can help connect people to a range of supports. Peer support workers also know exactly how substance use and the overdose crisis can affect someone’s life.

In the Behind the Numbers project, peer support workers describe what they experience at work each day.

What I see is people in real pain. Real physical pain.

They discussed the stigma that people experiencing addiction can face when they try to access care. 

“People hear, ‘You have an abscess on your leg because you’re a user, so it’s your own fault. Go away.’ People get laughed at. They get told, ‘There are other people who need our care more than you do.’”

And they highlighted how a lack of love and support can lead to substance use challenges.

“People are doing drugs because they are disconnected from other people. And that’s when you get addicted, when you don’t have meaningful connections to people.”

This pain, stigma and isolation can result from a range of events and experiences, including work injury, abusive relationships or unresolved childhood trauma. They also closely relate to overdose deaths.

Between 2016 and 2017, 69% of people who died of overdose in B.C. used drugs alone at home. 79% had contact with health services in the year before they died – more than half of that number for pain-related issues.

Peer support workers help reduce the risk of overdose by managing harm reduction services – including supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites – peer support counselling groups, and education and outreach programs.

And while their efforts are huge, the impact of peer support workers is even bigger.

Working at the supervised consumption site, I’ve saved over 200 people. It’s spiritual to save that many lives.

Peer support workers shared their stories in the Behind the Numbers research project, in which people with lived experience using drugs and healthcare service providers offered their perspectives to help further understanding of substance use and addiction in B.C.

Learn more about the Behind the Numbers project.

Read the Behind the Numbers stories book.