Is the ‘Peer’ in ‘Peer Mentor’ limiting?

Posted on: 27th May 2015


‘I don’t feel comfortable taking that call – she’s about to give birth and I’ve never had a baby!’ …… ‘She’s really struggling with her meds at the moment; I remember going through that phase at her exact age.’ These are just some of the soundbites that represent a typical debrief for Beyond Boundaries; a Body & Soul project which has been set up to provide YPLWH who are geographically and socially hard to reach, yet show the same demand for peer and professional support. 

Those that habitually work with young people will appreciate and recognise that the capacity to empathise and on some level identity with those young people is central to the psychosocial outcome you achieve with them. For a young person living with HIV, their psychosocial needs become complex, intricate and specific and subsequently, peer mentoring became the go- to approach for Beyond Boundaries; for a young person to even entertain the notion of talking about their status over the telephone, the voice on the other end would have to demonstrate that they know, understand and empathise what a day in the life of them might be like. However, in the short space of time that I have been working alongside our mentors on the project, it has come to surface that although the ‘peer’ in peer mentor is crucial to rapport building, it might actually be limiting in the sub sequential support being offered.

As an ex teacher, I am extremely familiar with the spoon fed culture we are raising today’s generation of children within. The pervasiveness of cyber danger and pressures placed on schools to achieve means children are denied the freedom to just ‘be’ but rather directed on how to perform and behave. Young people have become disempowered and passive in the construction of their own identities and if we add the further dimension of HIV to this identity construction, this powerless feeling is enhanced – their health becomes another aspect of their being which they may feel like they have no control over. Or is it? 

We want Beyond Boundaries to be different – to be an empowering service for young people rather than just another top down, directive service in the realm of services they access in their daily lives. We want our mentors to empower the young people they connect with – to ask powerful questions which challenge their disempowerment and ignite in them awareness that they have the answers as well as the solutions. Consequently, we are establishing a training programme which is moving away from the notion of mentoring and towards the concept of coaching.

Coaching is a model which can help those living with HIV to understand that quick solutions aren’t necessarily the most long lasting. Initially, we all want someone else to provide us with the answers– it’s both easier in the short term, but also in the long term as a form of blame when the strategies offered don’t work. However, if we can provide those living with HIV with the space to understand that they are both part of the challenge they face, as well as the solution, they become self sustaining in every area of their life; suddenly, our life, including our health, becomes our responsibility.. 

Additionally, coaching supports the personal development of our coaches. Initially, it removes the frequent burden that our peer mentors carry; the one that induces panic when they encounter a problem during their calls that they have no experience of – be it HIV or non HIV related. 

They are beginning to appreciate that solution giving is not a barometer for a successful conversation; it may provide them with a burst of pride and achievement as they embrace the ‘hero’ in them but our experiences of both success and challenge are never the same, irrespective of how similar they may appear aesthetically; The problems we face are often disconnected from the situation itself but more so a function of the mindset we bring to that situation and so a solution we embraced quite seamlessly may not be the case for another. Helping someone understand their own story and the role that their mindset plays within it is invaluable and it is this which should become the barometer for success within a conversation.

So, as we begin training our coaches in skills such as active listening and powerful questioning techniques, we endeavour to foster different measures of success – measures which are as simple as being present and mindful,. As it is often so accurately stated, ‘sometimes, we need someone to simply be there, not to fix anything , or do anything in particular, but just to let us feel that we are cared for and supported’.  I want to take this opportunity to recognise that supporting another with an experience that you yourself struggle with is neither an easy journey nor one that should be taken lightly. Stepping back from your own experiences and giving young people the space to understand their own is challenging and confronting, and this team of coaches are inspiring me every week as they navigate this path in their own journeys. 


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  • Alison at 16:42 on 23rd June 2015

    A really interesting blog. Empowerment is so important and it’s great to hear about how the coaching approach will benefit all. It is also great to recognise the efforts put in by the mentors/coaches who are helping others when facing their own struggles.