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How to Start a Peer Support Group in Your Region

In our last issue of Lifelines, we wrote about the benefits of peer support groups and how one LIUNA Local in the Northwest Region was able to meet the needs of some of their members by starting one. This month, we’re here with a follow-up on how to develop a peer support group in your Region.

“In the demanding careers of our LIUNA members, the importance of mental and emotional well-being cannot be overstated,” said LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Trustee Michael F. Sabitoni. “For our brothers and sisters facing chronic pain, depression, anxiety or even substance use disorders, finding understanding from peers who’ve had similar experiences can provide a vital lifeline for seeking solidarity, guidance and support navigating their struggles.”

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer Michael F. Sabitoni
LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer Michael F. Sabitoni

What Is Peer Support?

A peer support group brings together people with similar experiences, illnesses or circumstances to share their struggles, give advice, provide encouragement and foster a sense of safe, trustworthy community. Peer support is valuable because, unlike sympathy you might receive from loved ones, it offers an opportunity to connect with people who truly understand and can relate to what you’re going through.

Benefits of Support Groups

Starting a peer support group is a relatively easy, efficient and affordable way to create community and meet people’s needs. On top of these benefits, peer support also provides:

  • Cultural connection: Construction has a distinct culture, and support groups tailored to (and comprised of) Laborers can resonate deeply within this community.
  • Trust and relatability: Peers who have walked a similar path can offer a level of trust and relatability that may be challenging to find elsewhere. People value support from someone who has been in their shoes.
  • Personalized support: Members can share practical advice and emotional support based on firsthand experience, which is often more easily received by a peer than a medical professional.
  • Inspiration and role modeling: Seeing others make progress can be immensely motivating, providing hope and encouragement for what lies ahead.
  • Safe space: Support groups provide a confidential environment where individuals can express themselves without fear of judgment.
  • Feeling less alone: Members find solace in knowing they’re not alone in their struggles and can gain valuable insights into community resources.

This type of support can empower people to open up about their issues, which can reduce anxiety, improve self-esteem and promote an overall sense of well-being.

Starting a Peer Support Group

Launching a peer support group requires some planning and coordination, however it doesn’t have to be complicated. Below is a streamlined list of steps and considerations to get you started:

  • Seek organizational support: Gain approval and support from the Executive Board.
  • Define purpose and scope: Clarify the group’s objectives, meeting format (e.g., recovery-focused, educational) and who the group is intended for (members only, their families or both).
  • Choose a venue: Select a suitable location for meetings, ensuring accessibility and confidentiality. This could be at a union hall or elsewhere.
  • Think through logistics: Determine meeting frequency, duration and any associated provisions (e.g., refreshments). Consider designating a door greeter or snack provider, for instance.
  • Promote the group: Utilize various communication channels, such as messaging apps (e.g., WhatsApp, GroupMe), text blasts and surveys to reach potential participants. You can also promote the group using posters and flyers.

Choosing Support Group Leaders

A group leader or facilitator is tasked with opening and closing meetings, setting the tone for discussion and dealing with any problems that might arise during the meeting. An effective group leader should possess the following qualities:

  • Communication skills: The ability to listen actively and communicate empathetically is crucial.
  • Trustworthy: Leaders must maintain confidentiality and be perceived as trustworthy by group members.
  • Empathy: Understanding and compassion are essential for fostering a supportive environment.
  • Personal experience: While not mandatory, leaders with lived experience can offer unique insights and credibility.
  • Resourceful: Leaders should be adept at connecting members with relevant resources and navigating support systems.

While not necessary, peer support leaders may consider completing a training program such as the certification offered by Labor Assistance Professionals (LAP). It’s also recommended that group leaders don’t hold leadership positions in the union (e.g., a supervisor or foreman) because the power dynamic might cause a member to feel they can’t speak openly about sensitive issues.

Peer support can be an incredibly effective tool for Laborers who are struggling. These groups represent what LIUNA stands for: creating a supportive community that fosters resilience, camaraderie and hope. For more information about the formation of support groups, reach out to Jamie Becker.

If you have started or are part of a support group within your Local Union and want to share your own best practices or experiences, we would love to hear from you. We are all in this together and we are each other’s best tools for learning and growing.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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