Rachel Francis on the importance of peer support

16 Oct 2019

One Pump Court’s Rachel Francis talks about the importance of peer support within the legal profession in the latest edition of ILPA Monthly.

Below is an adapted version of the original article.

With World Mental Health Day having taken place on 10 October, attention frequently and naturally turns to questions of how to “achieve” wellbeing. In immigration law – as with many other areas of law that are or were traditionally publicly funded – this question sits uncomfortably alongside billing targets, the grave impact of legal aid cuts and extreme levels of trauma amongst our client groups.

These variables distract our time and our focus. The emphasis shifts away from creating a sustainable working practice – one where we are informed about the impact of stress, burnout and trauma on our work and on ourselves and equipped to manage it – onto how to push through the pressures and fallout of day to day practice.

How do we fight back against the unavoidable effect of our work on our wellbeing? One answer is peer support.

The mental health charity Mind adopts the following definition of peer support:

“Peer support is a system of giving and receiving help founded on key principles of respect, shared responsibility, and mutual agreement of what is helpful. Peer support is not based on psychiatric models and diagnostic criteria.

“It is about understanding another’s situation empathically through the shared experience of emotional and psychological pain.”

At its simplest, peer support is the exchange of support between people who have something in common. It is a model that features heavily in community-based strategies to improve mental health and wellbeing both formally facilitated by charities, NGOs and self-help groups and informally through service users sharing their experiences with one another.

Peer support forms part of the government’s mental health outcomes strategy “No Health Without Mental Health”, and is a tool used for clinical supervision of psychologists and psychotherapists (the Balint method). However, it is notably absent as a structure of support and resilience within the legal field.

In response to this lacuna, Claiming Space has built a model of monthly peer support groups for lawyers up to 10 years PQE who work with vulnerable or traumatised clients. The sessions provide a confidential space to learn, share and reflect on our practice.

We recognise that there is a particular pressure placed on newer entrants to the profession as experience and confidence can be lower, student debt higher, and new entrants often have high frontline caseload responsibility.

However, this is not to say that peer support should be confined to this group; it is a strategy available to and useful for all practitioners.

Through our experience of running these sessions, we have witnessed the effect of peer support as a tool to raise awareness within the sector of the impact of our work, normalising the difficulties of working with traumatised clients and breaking down stigma.

This is imperative in an area of law pushed and pulled by the will of the government and where swathes of the population and media are often staunchly opposed to our clients’ interests. We need each other; we need to have structures to support one another when doing this work.

Our anecdotal experience is supported by clear evidence of the positive impact of peer support in the

mental health sector: “As mental health service users we take each other’s stories seriously where often the professionals do not. Telling our stories and listening to each other’s stories is the cornerstone of peer support, empowerment and recovery. But it is also a political act.”

“The mutuality and reciprocity that occurs through peer support builds social capital, which in turn is associated with well-being and resilience”.

The power of peer support cannot be understated. It involves the bringing together of a group of people with shared working practices, shared pressures and a shared endeavour to achieve the best for their clients despite the enormity of the challenges presented by the current climate.

Quite literally it is a structure that allows you to access the support of your peers. Whilst some practitioners do this informally, having a formal structure readily available is highly preferable: it ensures that the level of support available is not conditional on your position in an organisation, the resources of your organisation or the working schedule and commitments of a friend or colleague.

In the follow up to World Mental Health Day or when thinking about how to “achieve” wellbeing, peer support is one tool in the armoury. It takes effort and care to set up a peer support group. However,

doing so is likely to be within the resources of most organisations, allowing practitioners to access a space to learn, share and reflect with one another.

Claiming Space is a community interest company founded by co-directors Joanna Fleck and Rachel

Francis to provide training and support for lawyers working with vulnerable or traumatised clients.

This original version of this article is available to Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association members here: www.ilpa.org.uk.

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