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Decolonising wellbeing support: Insights from our 2024 peer supporters training programme

Courageous people worldwide are fighting for human rights and social justice despite facing attacks and reprisals from powerful vested interests. Poor wellbeing and resilience is a very real danger, particularly among those working in closed civic spaces or violent environments.

Expanding the use of peer supporters in organisations and movements is key to enhancing individual and collective wellbeing. Trained to assume informal welfare roles, peer supporters destigmatise mental health needs, nurture supportive communities, and help foster emotional resilience at an individual and collective level.

Peer supporters are recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an effective mechanism for delivering person-centric wellbeing support at different scales. However, they remain rare outside of large, well-resourced organisations – creating an accessibility gap that particularly affects activists in the global majority.

Part of the problem is the culture of self sacrifice within social movements. “There is often a feeling among human rights defenders and other activists that they have to be tough in order to stand up for the rights of their communities; that somehow they have to be able to absorb challenges and difficulties in order to protect the rights of others,” reflects Liz Pycroft, one of our psychotherapists, who leads our peer supporter training. “Destigmatising wellbeing and encouraging activists to talk about it is really important, but often they don’t want to do it with a therapist or with their boss. They want someone who is going through exactly the same thing they are – a peer.”

Fostering resilience with peer supporter training

Peer supporter training can help equip activists with essential skills to help them create empathetic, confidential environments for discussing workplace stress and personal circumstances affecting wellbeing. Open Briefing has long provided such training to clients and helped their staff establish peer supporter programmes. But in order to encourage much wider uptake across social movements, we launched our first open training programme for peer supporters in February 2024. As part of this, we offered fully-funded places to individuals from grassroots organisations and movements.

The open training programme is part of our wider work to strengthen the role of localised or peer-led wellbeing support as a means of decolonising the protection space. Activists and grassroots organisations should be equipped to sustain wellbeing support programmes independent of training organisations in the global minority.

Activists and grassroots organisations should be equipped to sustain wellbeing support programmes independent of training organisations in the global minority.Click To Tweet

Our inaugural cohort of peer supporters came from four regions, including conflict-affected countries. While some were new to peer support, others had experience in informal wellbeing roles and an understanding of trauma. Despite this diversity of backgrounds and experience, participants shared a common goal: enhancing wellbeing support within their organisations and movements. “Even in countries where there is conflict, the peer support mechanism is useful to answer the wellbeing needs of individuals,” reflected Camille Gallié, director of wellbeing and resilience at Open Briefing. “Participants found peer support to be both a preventative and responsive approach to wellbeing needs,” she added.

Feedback and insights from new peer supporters

Feedback from participants in our first open training programme underscored the need for more peer supporters in organisations and movements, and highlighted the importance of accessible training programmes, regardless of funding.

A participant who works with environmental defenders in Central Africa emphasised the need for this training in his field and region. He has witnessed firsthand the profound effects of working in this space, including high stress levels, colleagues leaving their jobs, and instances of alcoholism. Reflecting that wellbeing should be a priority for all staff, he said “I will apply the training in my own work. I will start with myself and make sure that I do what I can to manage everything that can bring stress.”

Participants reported enhanced skills, competencies, and confidence to act as peer supporters, demonstrating the effectiveness of the training. All felt very well prepared to promote a culture that values wellbeing and resilience. They gained critical skills in observing, listening, and supporting distressed individuals. They learned to distinguish between burnout and psychological trauma, and became confident in providing primary psychological assistance and making appropriate referrals. All participants reported feeling very well prepared to offer information and support on basic stress reactions and positive coping strategies, and to signpost colleagues to professional support. One participant noted that “During this training, I learned how to observe, listen, support, share information, and refer someone in distress for professional support. The training also helped me build my resilience and wellbeing. I feel better able to cope with stressful situations.”

The programme strengthened solidarity among participants, who requested opportunities for further support and connection. A key outcome will be the creation of a new peer supporter network. We plan to create a people-centred network supported by our counsellors and psychologists, ensuring confidentiality, empathy, and a non-judgmental atmosphere. This network will promote collaboration, mutual learning, and trust among peer supporters and other stakeholders in the global protection ecosystem, enhancing collective support structures for human rights defenders and other activists.

Understanding the programme from a peer supporter’s perspective

Participants also provided invaluable feedback that will enhance the content and structure of future training programmes. This includes the need to support participants to adapt the content to local social norms and cultural sensitivities. For example, one participant expressed concerns about cultural perceptions hindering support efforts, particularly regarding gender dynamics.

Additional requests included guidance on setting boundaries to prevent peers from assuming counsellor roles without adequate preparation. Support was needed to help colleagues understand the limits of the peer supporter role and to signpost co-workers to professional psychological or medical support when needed.

Participants from conflict areas also highlighted the importance of Psychological First Aid and sought additional training to better assist colleagues in distress. A participant from Ukraine said “It is now important to be able to work with people with PTSD, and to be able to support them and help them to overcome this condition. It is crucial to deepen skills in combating burnout. It is also important to be able to form psychologically-healthy teams with an appropriate level of trust between colleagues.”

Open Briefing is committed to understanding and developing our training through the lens of and in consultation with the activists that we support around the world. Insights from our first cohort of peer supporters will directly inform the future content and format of the training programme going forward. For example, new questions could be added to our preparatory interviews to better understand the cultural and gender perspectives critical for participants implementing the training in practice. This insight could help us tailor additional training content – for example, introductory sessions on how to recognise signs of distress from a gender perspective – or offer simultaneous sessions for groups of participants addressing similar cultural sensitivities. Additional sessions on Psychological First Aid and boundary setting will also further strengthen skills and confidence. We are also exploring a train the-trainer model to scale our support beyond individual organisations and across entire movements.

Join our next training programmes

Our peer supporter trainer, Liz, emphasised the importance of understanding stress, anxiety, and trauma, and providing people with tools and support. Liz highlighted that compassionate early intervention can normalise experiences. She added that “We are really passionate about giving people the confidence and the skills to do that in organisations and social movements, and to support their colleagues to carry on doing the work that is important to them.”

Open Briefing is committed to amplifying the role of peer supporters within movements and organisations. Additional training programmes in Spanish and Arabic, with fully-funded places for individuals from grassroots movements and organisations, are planned over the next 18 months. To stay updated and request a sponsored place, please register your interest here.