Lieutenant Colonel (Retd), MSC, CD Founder and President of Board, PSAC Canada

Stéphane Grenier retired from the Canadian military as a Lieutenant Colonel after serving for over 29 years. Faced with his own undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) upon return from Rwanda, he took a personal interest in the way the Canadian Forces was dealing with mental health issues. In 2001, he coined the term Operational Stress Injury (OSI) and conceived, developed, implemented and managed a government-based national peer support program for the Canadian military. In 2007, he was entrusted with the task of creating a Canadian Forces-wide workplace mental health education program. His work led to the launch of a second highly successful non-clinical mental health program that now delivers peer-based mental health education to over 20,000 military personnel per year. He is a founding board member of Peer Support Accreditation and Certification Canada (PSACC).

Discovering the Value of Peer Support

It takes one to know one. That, according to Stéphane Grenier is why peer support works. In his mind it is the means by which a simple conversation has the power to change lives. In fact, he is convinced that a little chit chat has the potential to transform our mental health system. So this is where we come in – Stéphane is asking for our help to make this vision a reality. Stéphane has become a strong advocate for peer support because he has experienced firsthand how this can be a lifesaver. His mental health challenges first began when he returned from the military mission in Rwanda. In his words, he was not doing so well as a person living with undiagnosed PTSD. He described his experience as living in an emotional landscape that consisted only of mad, glad or sad. His deteriorating mental health resulted in relationship tensions and even he recognized that it would only be a matter of time before things reached the breaking point.

When he realized the destructiveness of it all, he began to take steps to move forward in his recovery. As it turned out, Stéphane did not discover recovery in the Canadian military system as it then existed. He has come to understand that the turning point for him began with what we now call peer support. For Stéphane, it was the conversations with those who had been in his shoes that gave him hope and the pathway to his own recovery. He is emphatic that the process of peer support was and still is an essential resource for him. According to Stéphane, being a peer supporter is also a way to give purpose to your own ordeal.

Sharing your lived experience with another peer not only benefits others who are suffering but also is a pathway to one’s own recovery.

He also points out that there is tremendous personal satisfaction in being brave enough to go out and help someone. For him, being involved in peer support has given him the opportunity to give back and not always take, take, take.

Stéphane admits that he found out the hard way that recovery is not a cure but rather that it’s about finding a way of living that supports one’s ability to thrive. That is why peer support has been so valuable for him. The support has been on-going for years and is still there when he needs it.

Imagine, he says, if peer support was available for everyone, as it has been for me.

Recent research studies have identified that the highest risk factor for mental decline of a person with PTSD is lack of social support. In some ways this is good news because it means that providing peer support can really help with the immediate issues of those who are at most risk to develop PTSD. We all understand that we can’t change the past but to keep stepping forward is a big part of learning how to live well again.

Those of us who have experienced mental illness understand that we don’t necessarily choose to be alone when we are ill. Unfortunately, that is often what happens. We might even actively resist contact with our family and friends who are at a loss as to how to help. That is why we need peer support – to intervene when there is lack of social support. Stéphane notes that the concept of basic social support is such a simple philosophy. He encourages us all to believe, as he does, that peer support can very much complement the medical model.

As the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, so does the pathway to recovery. It’s a theme that repeats itself again and again in the stories that we share about our personal histories. When you hear how a house-bound soldier started his path to recovery with a walk to the mailbox or how another was given hope for better days by simply knowing that he was not alone – you just know that the effectiveness of peer support cannot be denied.

It concerns Stéphane that the value of peer support has not yet been fully embraced by mainstream society. He wants to know why we are not doing this everywhere. According to Stéphane it’s time bring peer support into the mainstream for all of Canada. He would like to see peer support viewed as a legitimate mental health resource and to have peer supporters work as colleagues on the treatment team. People need to talk between their appointments. There is a place for peer support alongside the clinical program.

With that in mind, Stéphane envisages that we need to create a strategic lever that will facilitate the movement of peer support into the mainstream. He asks us to picture the peer supporters as the lever; if we then move the establishment over just a little bit then the lever will work much more efficiently. The rock upon which the lever rests will remain as is. However, as this metaphorical model shows – small steps can lead to big changes.

We are best suited to find the sweet spot between grass roots and formal dogma.

So Stéphane asks the question, how can we, as a group, articulate what we do in a clear fashion? His experience over the past decade has taught him that it is very important that we communicate with funders and decision makers in a language that they understand. He believes that political buy-in is a necessary first step to getting the funding that will support the growth of peer support throughout Canada.

Stéphane is optimistic that the status quo is already changing and invites us all to take advantage of the current momentum. In 2012, Grenier, along with a few colleagues, launched Peer Support and Certification – Canada (PSACC), an accreditation and certification body for peer support. This is cause for celebration because the first Certified Peer Supporters in Canada have just completed the certification process and will receive their certificates at this conference!

With the availability of the National Standard of Practice for peer support, he says there is no longer an excuse for peer supporters to remain in the margins of the formal system. We are now talking with a few more provinces about the possibility of empowering growth for peer support and I challenge all jurisdictions to do the same.

Stéphane Grenier’s keynote address at 8:45am, Thursday, May 1st, 2014. National Conference on Peer Support, 2014.