After an HIV diagnosis, the words of someone who has been there, done that are often the ones that help the most. It is with this in mind that we highlight peer-to-peer programs across the country.
Positive Living BC and St. Paul's Hospital
At the AIDS service organization Positive Living BC and at St. Paul's Hospital's Infectious Diseases Clinic, peer navigators work one on one with people who are newly diagnosed as well as those who have been living with HIV for some time -- to provide information, offer personal support and connect people to the services they need. Each client is matched up with a peer navigator based on shared histories and personalities. For many, this relationship becomes an important part of living well with HIV.
Peer navigators work hard to ensure that people don't get lost in the system, no matter their situation. They can accompany people with HIV to their doctor appointments or meet with them afterwards to answer questions. For some people, medical appointments can be loaded with anxiety. The presence of a peer helps ease the intimidation that many feel in a hospital environment and helps create a safe space where questions and fears are addressed by someone who's had similar experiences.
Peer navigators have extensive training in HIV treatment, management and prevention as well as harm reduction and reflective listening. These empathetic and understanding individuals are successfully creating links between marginalized individuals and clinicians, and improving health outcomes along the way.
To learn more, call 604.908.7710 or 604.682.2344 (ext. 63894) or visit www.positivelivingbc.org/service/peer-navigators.
Maison Plein Cœur
The chance to reflect on living with HIV and to support someone else through their journey takes a special individual and Maison Plein Cœur's Positive Group Support Program for HIV-positive men who have sex with men has many peer helpers who fit the bill. The program pairs people who are recently diagnosed with someone living with HIV who has had a chance to reflect on his experiences and receive training and support. This pairing helps to demystify the HIV experience and allows newly diagnosed people to see that even if their life is going to change significantly owing to their HIV, they can still live happily and healthfully.
The program combines support groups and discussions about topics like pleasure and safer sex with information about disclosure and treatment. Because GIPA (the greater involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS) is a core value of this AIDS service organization, peer helpers play a vital role in designing workshops, identifying discussion group topics and promoting the work of Maison Plein Cœur in clinics, gyms, bars and online.
Beyond information and support, this program is a source of hope and inspiration for many participants. Some arrive in distress and as they learn to manage their life with HIV and see other men who are living well with the virus, the desire to engage and help others takes hold. Some who initially receive support eventually become peer helpers themselves.
For more info, contact Vincent or Edith at 514.597.0554 or visit www.maisonpleincoeur.org.
AIDS Thunder Bay
Thunder Bay, Ontario
The peer support outreach workers at AIDS Thunder Bay spend much of their time reaching out to people who can be harder to reach. They connect with First Nations people, sex trade workers, youth and people who use injection drugs, distributing clean needles and safer crack kits and offering the support that only a peer can provide.
The past year has brought great success to this dynamic group. At Thunder Bay's Gay Pride events last summer, outreach workers introduced more than 150 people to the work of AIDS Thunder Bay. And later in the year, despite the rain, they connected with some of the people who were hardest hit by the city's flooding -- distributing harm reduction supplies as well as food and bottles of water to help people through the city's state of emergency. These dedicated volunteers are considered invaluable to the work of this AIDS service organization.
To find out more, call 807.345.1516 or visit www.aidsthunderbay.org.
AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia
Once a month a group of HIV-positive men who identify as gay or bisexual gather at the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia (ACNS) to share stories and support each other. For more than three years the support group has been an anchor for many dealing with the challenges of an HIV diagnosis. The group has had presentations from nurses, ACNS staff and even some of its own members who participate in national HIV initiatives and are then asked to share their experiences.
Those men who have been coming together for years are happy to offer people new to HIV guidance through complex hurdles such as disclosure, starting treatment and navigating the healthcare system. Lasting friendships have formed on these quiet evenings and while attendance tends to wax and wane with the ups and downs of life, a core group is always there to lean on.
To participate, contact Laura Toole at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region
Launched in 2012 as a pilot project, the Acute Peer-to-Peer Program is now a well-established peer support program that continues to grow. The program's mentors have become a valuable part of the Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region's work to engage more people in HIV care and to help those newly diagnosed manage some of the daily challenges that come with living with HIV.
Mentors and mentees are often referred to the program by the Regina General Hospital Infectious Disease Clinic and Population and Public Health Services but are increasingly connected through word of mouth -- a sure sign of how successful the blend of community capacity-building and mentor training has been. As part of the mentors' extensive training, a local psychologist has presented workshops on active listening, communication and assertiveness, and an infectious disease physician has provided HIV 101 education. The mentors share their experiences with mentees and support those who might be feeling isolated or intimidated. When a mentee feels ready, he or she can graduate from the program and move on to become a mentor.
For more info, contact Nicole Bachynski at Nicole.Bachynski@rqhealth.ca.
Sophie Wertheimer contributed to this article.