Originally published in the RLC Newsletter, June, 2012
According to www.dictionary.com, the word ‘peer’ is defined as follows: “a person who is equal to another in abilities, qualifications, age, background, and social status.” By that definition and as it has boiled down in our world to its most common usage, most of us have several ‘peer’ groups. Parents, doctors, students, authors, actors, nurses, artists, politicians, baseball players… all are one another’s peers. More importantly, in order to be a ‘peer,’ by definition, one person quite literally has to be connected to another. There is no such thing as a ‘peer’ standing alone, because then, well… whose peer are they?
Strange then, that – within the mental health system and recovery movement – we should be taking on this word ‘peer,’ as if it is the next best word for patient, client, consumer, ‘person served,’ participant, and/or member. It’s strange for two reasons. The first is that no ‘peer’ should be able to stand alone. There should be no such thing as ‘a peer,’ unless there is another ‘peer’ standing next to him or her. No person should be able to talk about ‘the peers’ as some group separate from themselves because it is antithetical to the very meaning of the word. Peer does not mean ‘someone receiving services.’ It means people who exist as a part of a community of some sort and who share commonalities and relationships with one another. It’s ‘my peers’ or ‘our peers,’ if it’s ‘peer’ at all. It’s stranger still because – in this work of recovery and ‘peer work,’ – we talk so often about how healing through relationship is at the core of what we do. And yet, in essence, we have begun to refer to ourselves by a word that originally was all about relationship and now, through our very usage of it, has lost that relational focus.
And so, before we go beyond the point of no return with our usage of this word, we encourage everyone to consider the impact and to remember that, if we use the word as it is defined, no ‘peer’ can stand alone.