By Leah Harris

Intentional Peer Support (IPS) is a relational approach developed in the 1990s by Shery Mead and other activists working for a paradigm shift in how we relate to one another, both within and beyond the mental health system. IPS differs from many other relational approaches in that it is grounded firmly in a social justice orientation: the IPS tagline is “peer support is about social change.”

Angel Prater and Danielle Grondin, trainers with the IPS Oregon Hub, created an infographic last month to illustrate how the Principles and Tasks of IPS apply in the time of COVID-19. For example, they say of shifting “from helping to learning together,” the first principle of IPS: “This is new territory for everyone and our needs may look different from person to person. When we come from a place of not knowing, we are able to learn what each others’ needs are, and navigate together through uncertain times.”

Grondin discussed the IPS task of embracing different worldviews, and why it’s so important for us to practice right now. “[Worldview] allows us to explore all of the ingredients that have enabled us to see the world in which we do. And I think that makes space for our differences as applied to COVID-19. People are experiencing this pandemic in different ways, and to say, ‘Oh, well, you’re seeing this experience differently and that’s allowed.’ There’s acceptance of that.”

Another important concept from IPS is “language creates reality.” In a time of COVID-19, this means resisting and rejecting language that blames or shames Asian-Americans. We might also might push back on attempts to medicalize, pathologize or otherwise invalidate very understandable human responses to fear, uncertainty, and instability caused by the virus. Finally, it may regard exercising critical thinking towards warlike metaphors used to describe the virus that may be sowing excessive fear and stress.

On a recent Open Excellence podcast interview, Prater and Grondin shared additional ideas about how the IPS framework, created to navigate through personal crisis, applies to global crisis as well. As Grondin explained, “It’s a lens, so to speak, or just the framework you can use to apply to anything. But challenging situations is definitely the territory, I think, in which it shines because it’s about how you create mutual healing. How you do this with community and mutually responsible relationships?”

On the podcast, Prater elaborated on how the principle of “mutuality,” or shared responsibility, is understood in IPS. “We need to be mindful that mutuality does not mean equality. There’s a lot of different power structures within our system, within our households, et cetera,” Prater told Open Excellence. “And so how do we hold mutuality as a foundation of being with one another, which goes back to honoring the multiple truths and remaining connected, or identifying when we then become disconnected, and mutually agreeing that we want to move towards what we want to create together in this relationship?”

The IPS framework challenges us to practice so many ways of being together, even in the face of physical distancing measures, that are truly transformative. An IPS principle that feels especially relevant during this time is shifting the focus “from fear to hope and possibility.” 

In a 2016 interview with Psychology Today, Shery Mead described this task in further detail. “The heart of this principle is sitting with discomfort,” Mead said. “We pay attention to how fear drives reactivity. When we are afraid we tend to want to control the situation. With a hope-based focus, we embrace uncertainty instead of trying to manage or shut things down. Instead of forcing solutions, we hang in there with each other long enough for new possibilities to emerge.”