Breaking barriers to connection with the help of peer support.

MS Peer support news image - Women hugging

We can never underestimate the importance of giving and receiving support from others on a similar journey. Peer support can help you understand a recent diagnosis, manage your symptoms and live well with MS. 
 
“The experience [of joining an MS peer support group] was life-changing for me. Not only did I receive great and relevant information and education about MS, but I was also no longer isolated and alone.”
 
That’s how MS peer support participant Nichole remembers the feeling of connecting with other women her own age who were also living with MS.
 
“When I had a major [MS] relapse at 32, I was medically retired and lost my sense of self and worth, and I became more isolated and dependent on others,” she says.
 
The turning point came when Nichole received a call from our MS Connect team inviting her to join a peer support Telegroup with other women her own age.
 
“I felt supported, empowered and reinvigorated to manage and live well with my MS,”
says Nichole.
 
Peer support is the act of connecting with others who are in a similar situation.
 
By drawing on their own experience, people are able to share similar stories and feelings, thereby providing each other with friendship, companionship and understanding.
 
Studies have found that peer support increases life expectancy, improves self-efficacy and self-care skills, and reduces use of emergency services. Providers of peer support also report less depression, heightened self-esteem and self-efficacy, and improved quality of life.
 
This is corroborated by disability and mental health organisation Wellways, who further asserts that peer support improves recovery and health outcomes for people including improved hope, increased self-esteem, improved advocacy skills, a sense of connection and belonging, and a reduction in clinical symptoms.
 
At our World MS Day livestream, CEO of Peer Support Australia, Greg Cantwell, said that the value of lived experience within a peer support context provides almost a ‘shorthand’ for people – they don’t need to explain themselves because others in the group have been there too.
 
“My lived experience is not necessarily somebody else’s lived experience. So I think that’s where the richness is because it means that whilst we have some shared experiences, it’s very much about, how do we journey together to receive the support that we need?” he said.
 
The camaraderie that springs from peer support groups often provides people with the confidence to keep on trying, as illustrated by this comment from a peer support participant: The encouragement of the group spurred me on to apply for the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) three times and finally I now access it, but it would not have been possible without the group’s encouragement.”
 
What makes a successful peer support program?

According to Greg Cantwell, it’s “giving people the support, the skills, the strategies to better navigate life, whatever that might be because my journey is different to your journey and everybody else’s…it’s really about giving people the skills to work through the times when things aren’t great to enjoy and celebrate when things are really brilliant…there is someone who is walking alongside me as part of my journey. And I think that’s the power that you get through a peer support program,” he said.
 
The value of connecting with someone who ‘just gets it’
 
According to Tara Cantwell, Community Connections Team Manager at MSL, connecting with someone who ‘just gets it’ leads to participants saying they feel less alone and more supported, immediately breaking emotional barriers to connecting with others.
 
“There’s significant impact in sharing personal stories with all parties in peer support, both for the person sharing the story, and the person hearing it. Sharing from the space of a lived experience, can help individuals understand their own experience, and therefore see improved health and wellbeing outcomes. And those that hear a reflection of their experience from someone else, feel less isolated,” she says.
 
 “The support provided by the peers has assisted many people to regain their confidence, changing their perspective from seeing all the losses a diagnosis can bring to looking at how they can manage their MS and develop ways to live well with the condition,” agrees MSL Peer Support Coordinator, Kim Repcak, further adding, “peer support has been a life saver to many people with MS, especially during the challenging times of COVID. Being able to pick up the phone to connect with others with MS has been an incredible support during a time of such isolation. One member said it was the one thing she looked forward to each month.”
 
Our long-standing peer support program creates safe spaces where people living with MS, their family members or careers can find support and support each other.
 
When you contact MSL to be part of a peer support group, our team will connect you with a volunteer who has similar interests to you or is living a similar stage of their MS journey. This way, you’re connected with someone who really understands what you’re going through.  
 
“We can connect and share true empathy as we all get it,” says a participant from MSL’s Geelong peer support group.
 
“The knowledge I gain from the group has helped me to learn how to live well with MS. It helps me regain control in my life and my independence,” agrees another participant.
 
MSL offers peer support through a variety of channels including online, by phone and face to face, and it’s completely free to participate.  Call our MS Connect team on 1800 042 138 or email msconnect@ms.org.au for more information. To watch our peer support livestream on peer support, visit www.ms.org.au/peer_support.



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