Peer work and mental health: There is always a way

Carmen Ploch, Peer at the neunerhaus Mental Health Practice discusses depression, prejudice, the power of talking and actually listening and the role of peer workers.

For a long time, perhaps too long, I was convinced: something is not right with me. Something cannot be right, when I am always thinking so much and racking my brain about everything and everyone, when I’m too serious and sensitive on top of that. At one point, I began to try and avoid myself – my imagination and ideas, my needs and constant sensitivity. No room for those in everyday life.

I felt like people were mocking me when they asked, ‚how are you?‘ – on the other hand, I had no interest in once again making small talk about the weather. No matter where I turned, it always seemed as if my thoughts and needs were not appropriate, were too demanding, or, much more likely, simply too exhausting. Not fitting in enough, not accepting enough, having too many questions. The constant and incessant doubts about myself led me at an early stage down paths that I would have preferred not to go down at all – into the borderlands of the soul and beyond, much further than I would have chosen for myself.

Eine neunerhaus Peer-Mitarbeiterin spricht vor dem Gesundheitszentrum mit einem Nutzer
© Christoph Liebentritt

Of course, there is a certain power in suffering, albeit at first a seemingly destructive one. I was prescribed medications, told that I had to take them for the rest of my life. It wouldn’t make sense otherwise, a chronic defect, a clear-cut case. Recurrent depressions are also a matter of genetic predisposition. Moreover, a tendency to vent frustration and anger towards myself rather than externally, an emotionally unstable person, one who feels and senses and thinks too much, how exhausting. Proof that medication is necessary.

The thing about talking and actually having someone listen is that it never seemed easy – no-one could, or wanted to, talk to me in more detail. Too little money, too much pain. And it is pain that has always preoccupied me. Because, as we know, there are many kinds, and to this day, I do not know exactly what I am actually suffering from. I did not dare to see, let alone accept, that my depressions and sensitivity are probably symptoms rather than causes. Through all this time, I had a great fear of looking too closely, and it cost me a lot to overcome this fear, because who wants to be seen as a stereotype, who wants to be pigeonholed?

I would be glad if I could say that I ‘simply’ have depression – everything quite clear and easy to read up about. But post-traumatic stress is exactly what the name suggests, and borderline personality disorder is even more challenging – these diagnoses are seen as particularly difficult to treat and can only be talked about in hushed tones, that’s at least how it feels. The prejudice you encounter when delving into these topics is extraordinary, it deserves a whole separate article.

I am sure this constant, inevitable confrontation with myself is one of the reasons why the people who talk to me and whom I try to listen to with full attention in my work can feel that I am still fighting my own battles. That I am absolutely serious when I ask how someone is doing, and I am not interested in the answers that they have already given on hundreds of other occasions – the things they always say when asked how they are doing. When I ask, I really want to know what they are feeling on the deepest level – when the unbearable things become too great, when no one else asks them about their dreams. Then they need someone prepared to stand by them, someone who dares to take a look into the abyss together with them.

I was always convinced that many of the things that make you sick, that cause you the most pain, can also be the key to recovery. That it is important to be brave and to look closely and to question. To take time and read between the lines, to truly listen, whether that is to yourself or to someone else.

Naturally, questions sometimes come up that we cannot answer. Even with the questions I asked myself, the answers remained vague, or were completely absent. That’s why I did what I always did and relied on my intuition, used my existing interests and skills to express myself, and work on myself. As long as I can remember, I have been like that. A crafter and autodidact, someone who absolutely needs music, enjoys writing and reading, loves being creative. Someone who sometimes ponders at length the nature and meaning of the colour, shape, structure, and even the smell of different materials. Someone who has learned over time that it often helps to articulate your thoughts and pain. Or to distract yourself and refocus when needed. Someone who often swam against the current and still does, unknowingly acquiring resilience and even more resources over time.

The work of peer workers, based on our own experiences, plays a very special role: We are allowed to give people time and attention, to show that they are valued. We are allowed to show others that they don’t have to let difficulties determine or define them. On the contrary, their own story, their own experiences and insights already bring with them important tools and skills. They can learn to recognise these and apply them.
We should make sure to remember: there is always a way.


Carmen Ploch has worked in various professions and has extensive experience with the impact on health of precarious living conditions, and living on the poverty line. She knows the psychological and physical challenges caused by different stress factors, and advocates for a health-promoting and destigmatising attitude. She wants to further develop her own creative workshop into a self-care workshop, along the lines of the salutogenic approach. After graduating from the peer certification course run by the neunerhaus Peer Campus, Carmen has been working since 2021 at the neunerhaus „Mental Health Practice“, based in neunerhaus’ health centre in Vienna.

This article originally appeared in German in the publication „PEER We Are – Insights into peer work in the homelessness sector„, published by the neunerhaus Peer Campus in March 2023.