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Peer support can create an enabling environment for us as women living with HIV to feel empowered and take control of what is happening to us in our lives once more.
Shared experiences can address common concerns or experiences like stigma and disclosure. Personal support from another woman living with HIV can be uplifting and inspiring, and counters a sense of isolation.
Remember that there are different peer support groups out there and you may want to try out a few before deciding on one that is right for you. For instance, if you are not yet on medication and most of the group is, you may feel that the discussions do not feel relevant to you yet. If you also have other conditions and most of the group “just” has HIV, you may want to seek out another peer group. It’s up to you! There are no rules. You can decide which peer group works for you.
The whole idea about peer support groups is that they are warm and welcoming environments where our ideas are shared and mutually respected.
A peer support group can improve our understanding of HIV, and increase our knowledge of treatments and adherence. It can explore any issues in our lives which concern us in relation to HIV – or even some which are of relevance to any woman! Workshops were run by Positively Women in the UK in September 2008 on:
Evaluation of the workshops demonstrated that all participants had a better understanding of treatment issues and adherence following the group. Over the year, 59% of women using services reported increased ability to make healthcare decisions.[i] This may well be because the language used in peer support is easy to understand and demystifies HIV.
There is no right way to run a peer group
If there is a peer support group for women in your area, you can find out about it from your HIV organisation or from your HIV doctor. If there isn’t yet a peer support group where you live, maybe you would like to set one up. You can read more about peer support groups on this website and on websites of other organisations which offer peer support to women with other conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and obesity.
Many peer support groups start small. A typical support group for women living with HIV was something set up when two women living with HIV got together, asked a local HIV organisation (if there was one) or HIV clinic for a meeting space and some funds for refreshments, and asked them to let other women in the area know about them. They may have written a small leaflet and asked an HIV organisation to copy it and post it or email it out. They may have left a small pile of leaflets in the organisation’s offices or the HIV clinic for any woman to pick up.
Gradually the numbers grow and the group forms!
Some peer groups are quite informal and just meet for an hour for a chat over a coffee or tea and snacks once a month. Others prefer to develop a more formal structure, identify a facilitator, invite guest speakers, or have a structure to the sessions, such as those described on this website. Other peer groups might have cinema outings, a meal or a picnic in the park. It is up to you all to suggest what you want to do with your peer group – and whether this works for you all or not. There is no “right way” to run a peer group.
Peer support from women can increase the confidence and self-esteem of women living with HIV
The hardest thing for a peer support group to do is often to raise funds to keep going. This is because people think that peer support is just a “nice” thing to do but that it plays no real role in “real” HIV care or management. However, there is now increasing formal research evidence that shows the benefits.
This intervention also delivered improvements to the physical health of women and families living with HIV, with 71 percent of participants reporting an increase in physical health.[iii]
Similar improvements were seen with mental health – a very important issue for people living with HIV, and one which is often not explored with women at clinic visits.[i]
In other disease areas peer support has likewise been seen to improve depression.[iv]
[i] P2P – Pos UK – Peer Support Model – 2010
[ii] Positively UK. Peer Support Model. 2010.
[iii] California Health Care Foundation. Building Peer Support Programs to Manage Chronic Disease: Seven Models for Success. 2006.
[iv] California Health Care Foundation; Building Peer Support Programs – 2006. (Exec Summary p 8-9.)
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