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Season 4, episode 12

Peer worker Reece on how your own experience can be the key to recovery for others


This episode will be published on 22 May, 2024
The concept of including peers in your treatment team, that is people who have recovered from a similar health experience to yours, is not new in healthcare.

Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has successfully engaged the support of recovered people—called sponsors—since the 1930s.

However, until recently, the model of care has remained quite uncommon. The good news it’s experiencing a much welcomed revival, with peer support widely being seen as vital to an eating disorder recovery team.

“Peer work is a new space compared to clinical support, but it is incredibly powerful,” says Reece Georgas, a peer worker in Butterfly’s new Next Steps program that offers support to people discharging from hospital care. “I think it’s a game changer.”

Reece turned years of difficult mental health challenges and an eating disorder into something of value for others on a path he knows well.

“Out of all the hospitals I’ve been in, the one where the therapist had a lived experience and where the groups were peer led – this is what I found to be most beneficial.”

Listen to Reece’s honest description of his own experience and how peer workers are skilled to use their mental health story intentionally to support others safely.

Find out more about Butterfly’s Next Steps Program

Find out more about Butterfly’s Peer-led Recovery Support Group

Find out more about Butterfly’s Peer-led Program for Carers

Read our Peer Workforce Guidelines

Reece Georgas: [00:00:00] It brings a real smile to my face when I see someone that I’m supporting even have greater self awareness or self acceptance within themselves and break down some of those barriers, reducing some of the shame they have or the stigma. And there might not even be really big wins, but the small wins add up over time.
And even just seeing them celebrate something that they’ve achieved. It is incredibly rewarding work.

Sam Ikin: One of the recurring themes of this podcast is the importance of people with a lived experience in the recovery process. Now this is nothing new, we haven’t broken new ground on this, we’re just trying to make it accessible to as many people as possible.
The concept shot to prominence in the 1930s with the proliferation of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is based around meetings where people anonymously share their lived experience with addiction, and it proved to [00:01:00] be extremely helpful. More recently, the concept has become indispensable in the treatment of all kinds of mental illnesses, including eating disorders.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s that it emerged in its current form as peer support work. Today, peer support is widely seen as a vital component of an eating disorder recovery team. Today’s guest, Reece Georges, has turned his years of suffering with an eating disorder into a fulfilling job as a peer support worker for outpatients who’ve completed a stay in residential care or in hospital treatment.

And he’s very kindly decided to spend some time with us here on Let’s Talk In Depth.

Reece Georgas: I’m someone who’s walked the road less travelled in life. And it’s been a very lonely journey and a very painful journey. But at the same time, I’ve had some incredibly magical experiences that have allowed me to really connect to my inner world and to make peace with who I am.[00:02:00]

And in 2018, I wrote my life story and through that I performed some slam poetry. And someone came up to me afterwards and said, thank you so much for sharing your story. And for me to see what’s possible for myself, thank you. And was so grateful that they were there that evening. And that really stuck with me because it’s the whole idea of fostering hope.
And that’s what led me into peer work and helping others using my own lived experience of mental illness to be able to, walk alongside people who may have had a similar journey themselves.

Sam Ikin: But wow, what an experience. So look, we’ll dig into that a little bit further in a minute, but how did that journey lead you to Butterfly?

Reece Georgas: I’ve always had this kind of pull towards sharing my story to help others who may have had similar experiences. And I like to explain it as like a [00:03:00] sticky note in the wind that just keeps Blowing around and getting stuck to me. And it was to reach out to Butterfly actually to apply for their speakers and ambassadors program called the Butterfly Pathfinders.

So I put in an application for that and that’s where it all started really. And I really immersed myself in the world of lived experience and joined that collective Butterfly collective as well. And just started sharing my story bit by bit. And then from there, I. Found a webinar about how to use your lived experience or how to get into lived experience work now I’m a peer worker there and doing this work But yeah, it was really exciting.

Sam Ikin: Is it rewarding?

Reece Georgas: It is incredibly rewarding work and I had so many years when I was unwell where I didn’t work and I thought I’m so painfully far behind all of my peers who are out there, climbing the ladder in their careers and starting families and traveling and, doing hobbies and all these things.

And I’m like what am I doing? And, [00:04:00] what do I got to show for myself? But I was working, I was working on myself and I laugh about it with people and say, Oh, I got a PhD in resilience because I’d built so much skills and peer work has given me an opportunity to get into the workforce and to show that, I do have a lot of lived experience and life experience that I can transfer into the workforce and I’m able to have authentic connections with the people I work with and they don’t wear a mask out there, they take it off when they’re with me and I’m able to have such genuine and meaningful connections and see people for who they are and that is an incredibly rewarding experience.

Sam Ikin: Now, I think our audience who largely people with a lived experience would love to hear a bit about your lived experience and your recovery. Can you share what you would, what you feel comfortable with?

Reece Georgas: Yeah, definitely. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was 19 years old. At the time I was actually studying a film and television [00:05:00] degree. But I had to withdraw. And I went into hospital for four months and I was extremely unwell.
The doctors told my parents that I might not make it through the night. And I believed that recovery wasn’t possible for me, that I wasn’t going to recover. And I think I spent the next four to five years in and out of hospital, not really making much progress at all. I was somewhat medically stable, but psychologically, I was getting worse.

And I went on to develop very severe and debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder. And I had completely withdrawn from life, family, friends my hobbies and anything that brought me joy. And it’s funny because I was hidden and I wanted to be invisible, but at the same time I so desperately wanted to be seen and validated.

But in treatment settings, I felt like an outcast and that I didn’t belong there because at the time I was also struggling with my gender identity and I came out as transgender at the age of 23, but I didn’t see anybody [00:06:00] like me or myself wasn’t represented in any treatment settings so I actually ended up lying and copying the other people in the group and sharing their stories because everybody was just the same.

And I had so much shame of saying what I really felt inside and what was a big barrier to me recovering was that I didn’t feel like I could navigate life in a female body because I was born female and having anorexia was a way to suppress those feminine features but I didn’t want to say this out loud because people might go, oh, you’re crazy and this is crazy. And you’re mentally ill. And that lack of diversity in treatment settings made me step away from traditional treatment. And that’s why I’m inspired to be a peer worker now, because I know how unique everybody’s journeys are, and I want to walk alongside people to improve their quality of life on their terms.

Sam Ikin: So tell us, what’s peer work?

Reece Georgas: It’s not new, but at the same time, it’s a very new space in the eating disorder field and it’s very, it’s a growing [00:07:00] space, but the peer work role involves drawing upon your own lived experience of a mental illness or caring for someone who has a mental illness to really foster hope that recovery is possible and to encourage people to actively participate in their own recovery journeys.

As peer workers, we walk beside people, we listen to their stories, we validate their stories, and we support people where they are at in their recovery. We focus on a person’s strengths. But also when we talk about lived experience in a team and a multidisciplinary team, we provide different perspectives on the work that we do, the language that we use, and also our attitudes towards hope and recovery.

So peer workers try to, shape that. social change, not just on the grassroots, but also within systems.

Sam Ikin: Can anyone do it or is it something that you need specific skills for?
Reece Georgas: I think there are a number of pathways to peer work, but the essential requirement of peer work [00:08:00] is that you have a lived or living experience of a mental illness or caring for someone with a lived or living experience of a mental illness.
But there are formal training pathways you can take. And that includes, studying say like a certificate for in mental health, peer work which is offered online and also in person. Or, a number of different professional development opportunities, like purposeful storytelling, some learning how to, support people safely and sharing your story and self care and all of that as well. But also some. Some other skills, which could include count some counseling skills or just learning how to, work with people and support people who may be in crisis as well.
Sam Ikin: We talk about. a recovery team. And I think this is widely accepted as one of the best ways for people to find recovery is to have you, you have a, a general practitioner and a psychologist and a psychiatrist and a dietitian. And should a peer support worker be part of that?

Reece Georgas: [00:09:00] Yeah, absolutely. I think peer support work is Definitely quite a powerful medium and in that wraparound care because it’s, not like peer workers don’t take a clinical approach. They don’t focus on diagnosis. So they help people discover and build on what’s already working for them, even in the midst of their illness.

So it’s a non hierarchical approach where we’re on the same level as the person that we’re helping and that can really invite healing and lead to a great greater personal awareness for the person because they’re able to establish that really deep connection that’s based on shared experiences.

Sam Ikin: When we talk about sometimes we talk about tough love which is generally something we try not to we try to steer away from but I suppose in your work sometimes it does it come to a point where what you’re telling somebody is really hard for them to hear?
Reece Georgas: It’s interesting because I think that, a big part of peer [00:10:00] work is really building trust within that therapeutic relationship based on mutual understanding and respect.

And once you’ve built that trust with someone, you can gently challenge them. And, but you might be like, Oh, can I share something from my life that’s really helped me that what I’ve learned? And with their permission, you can go into some things that you found helpful, and then it might really open up, the conversation, awareness for them of something in their own life. But then also acknowledging that, there might be a different stage to you and where they’re at really hearing them and what it is that they need.

Sam Ikin: Reece is part of Butterfly’s Next Steps team, which is a virtual outpatient recovery program for people transitioning from hospital or residential care.
Can you take us through a day in the life of a, an ED peer worker? What’s the role like, what does it involve?

Reece Georgas: As an eating disorder, peer worker it is a little bit different to say, maybe a mental health peer worker because it’s, having the lived experience of an eating disorder.
[00:11:00] And, during my day, I help guide participants through practical steps of making behavioral change to support their recovery from their eating disorder. So at the beginning of the day I might log on and check some emails and then I go into a team meeting where we like hand over information from the night before over the weekend, or if we have any new participants that might be starting on the program.

And then I’ll go into some one on one peer support sessions for the afternoon. And those sessions can look quite differently. It can be quite broad. So I might be having a chat with someone checking in of how they’re going. We might do some more practical things like You might, jump on a call and go to Woolies and maybe buy something that they’re a little bit challenged to eat or might be struggling with, or even go to a cafe and work on a snack challenge or a difficult meal without support.

So it can be quite broad also running groups with various topics and it’s really peer led. So everyone feels safe to, to share their story on what’s going on, [00:12:00] what’s going on for them. Also part of my role is working in a multidisciplinary team. So we meet and, discuss what’s going on with further participants in our program and have varied perspectives from an entire team.

Sam Ikin: So it’s a pretty involved kind of a job, but it sounds like it’s something that is absolutely indispensable for the people who you work with. During your rather unorthodox recovery, did you have the support of a peer?

Reece Georgas: I hadn’t heard of peer work when I was in recovery. But I did come across a mentor and yeah, this mentor really, had a huge impact on my life ’cause as I mentioned earlier I was studying film and television and it was something that was so important to me. And as a kid I was always making movies and I I made a documentary of my brother’s football team when I was in year 12. And I ended up doing really well in that and getting in, a high enough UAI back then to, to get into [00:13:00] uni.

I was incredibly excited about, going into that path. And when I was getting a lot of clinical support I felt really reduced to my diagnosis and I felt helpless to change my situation. That was it for me. I’m not going to be able to get back to, to, my dream of working in film and television and this mentor they laughed and said, It’s funny, you keep saying you’ve lost this and you’ve lost that, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.

But it’s funny because I still see it. Like I still see you doing those things and you have all these strengths. And for the first time I, I saw, some strengths within myself and was like, you know what there are things I can do despite, all these challenges I have in my life.

And I went back and I finished that course and I ended up, going on this incredible journey of bringing stories to light that were rooted in stigma and shame and producing documentaries and ended up getting a job at channel nine before I even finished my course. And I won apprentice of the year at the TAFE New South Wales excellence [00:14:00] awards. And this is all on the back of the belief, that I could do it. Just after, working with this mentor and I’d been working in clinical settings, been recovering in clinical settings for four or five years, and I hadn’t made any progress, but this, a few conversations with this mentor and it inspired me enough to make change in my life.

Sam Ikin: That’s pretty powerful. I reckon that’s a pretty powerful story about the strength that you can get from talking to someone else who’s walked a similar path.

Reece Georgas: when I was in school, film and TV was definitely my dream. And I think it’s definitely not lost because I, yeah, went down the path of producing and directing some really powerful documentaries that people can watch. focused on really vulnerable people in our society and reducing stigma and discrimination in mental health and using that as a platform to raise awareness. And yeah it’s brought me along this journey and brought my, innermost passion to the surface. And that is to help others [00:15:00] to embrace their authenticity and live courageously and to connect with their heart and find hope, and that’s what, peer work is all about. And the letters of hope spell out here in other people’s experiences. And for me, that’s so powerful to know that you’re not alone and that it’s okay to not be okay is a really big one.

Sam Ikin: Is it a path that you would recommend others walk that is and I’m not suggesting a lot, like your entire life, but in terms of finding peer work and ending up in the job that you have right now?

Reece Georgas: Yeah. If anyone listening is thinking about, going down the path of peer support or has that, they’re drawn towards peer work, I definitely, recommend looking into it because for me, it has been absolutely life changing and I really found my passion here and I was a bit hesitant of, oh, do I do it or do I not do it? Am I qualified enough? And and it was being able to [00:16:00] realize that there was value in what I have to share. And then if anyone believes that, they had something to share, it’s definitely valuable and that, other people can learn from your story.

Sam Ikin: Can carers work with peers and I guess, does that mean they would have to work with a peer who is also, has lived experience as a carer?

Reece Georgas: Yeah, absolutely. Carers are actually often forgotten and a carer’s a human too and it’s, I think, back to my own experience of my mum and she’s an incredibly strong woman. But she went through a lot when I was sick as well, and she was silently suffering. But, had there been peer support back then, who was, had another carer, and who was maybe caring for someone with an eating disorder, for someone for her to talk to, and, to discuss, maybe the guilt she was feeling the pain and, everything that comes with supporting someone you love going through something so difficult. It could have been a real help for her at the time. [00:17:00] So I definitely think, caring for someone with a mental illness can be extremely challenging and exhausting and having to, having someone to walk alongside that, journey can be an invaluable resource.

So I definitely recommend carers to reach out for peer support, to chat about their experiences too.

Sam Ikin: That’s the first time you’ve mentioned the people who were with you, through, through the whole thing. And for you, it sounds like it was your parents or your mom. Geez, parents step up to the plate, don’t they? When their kids are struggling. I find it amazing. It’s, it must be something you see quite a lot, but that I know I can’t state how important that is. That particular type of support is as well.

Reece Georgas: Yeah. A hundred percent. Yeah. Parents definitely, Will step up to the plate. And the thing is, they often ignore or abandon themselves in the process.
And I think that’s an important thing for peer support is, being able to go who’s, the carers are caring for people with an [00:18:00] eating disorder, but who’s caring for the carers and, learning that, there is self care strategies and there’s ways, carers can also look after themselves and make sure that they’re also doing things that bring them joy in life and having an outlet and someone to talk to about, the difficulties and the challenges and to also learn about setting boundaries to make sure that they’re caring for themselves as well.
Sam Ikin: Parents would definitely have a feeling of it would be rewarding for them to see somebody who they’ve looked after their whole life actually get through something. That’s a huge achievement for you as a peer. Do you get a similar kind of a feeling when somebody starts to make progress?

Is it like a rewarding? Experience to watch somebody make progress and get where you’re trying to help them get?

Reece Georgas: Yeah, it brings a real smile to my face when I see someone that I’m supporting. even have greater self awareness or self acceptance within themselves and break down [00:19:00] some of those barriers, reducing some of the shame they have or the stigma.

And there might not even be really big wins but the small wins add up over time. And even just seeing them celebrate something that they’ve achieved. Because often we don’t celebrate the small wins in recovery. And it’s something as a peer worker that I’ve been really passionate about. When I support My, my participants and just seeing them experience more joy in their lives and increased independence and self determination where they’re taking charge of their life.

Sam Ikin: Is it a job that you would recommend?

Reece Georgas: Just because you have a lived experience in a mental illness or caring for someone with a mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the path for you. It’s, working in mental health can be incredibly challenging as well. And, it’s very important to, to look after yourself in the process and, often workplaces will have supervision.

So then you have, people to talk to about, things that may come up for you in your own journey. And it’s constantly working on [00:20:00] yourself too, throughout the process to, things come up. For yourself, either, from your own story or your perceptions of, from your own experiences in life and how that might impact the person that you’re supporting.

So it can be, challenging work as well, but yeah, incredibly rewarding at the same time.
Sam Ikin: I’ve finished with questions, I’ve got no more questions for you, but I just want to throw it open to you to tell our audience, anything that you particularly think they need to know.

Reece Georgas: If I could say anything, it would be that it’s okay for recovery to look different and to find what works for you. And I support you to challenge the stigma around peer work being less valuable than that of clinical support. Cause peer workers have training in how to use their mental health experience intentionally to support others safely.
So that combination of lived experience plus professional training is a really powerful combination. And. Out of all the hospitals that I’ve been in the one where the [00:21:00] therapist had a lived experience and where the groups were peer led was the one I found the most beneficial. So I really, yeah reflect you to think about peer support, what that might look like for you or how you would show up in a peer support session, because it is still quite a fairly new space compared to clinical support but one that is incredibly powerful and I think is a game changer in the field.

Sam Ikin: Well, Reece, it’s been so nice chatting with you. I very much appreciate your time. Thank you for being so open and honest with us.

Reece Georgas: Thanks, Sam. Yeah, I really appreciate having this conversation with you and sharing my passion for peer work.

Sam Ikin: The program that Reece works for is Butterfly’s Next Steps Outpatient Program, and you’ll find all you need to know about that at butterfly.org.au. And just search next steps outpatient program. There are also great support groups for people experiencing an eating disorder or body image issue, and for their carers, friends, or [00:22:00] family, where they can benefit from peer support and connect with others who understand what they are going through.

And again, you’ll find everything that you need to know about that at butterfly. org. au. If you need support right now, the best place for you to start is the Butterfly National Helpline on 1 800 334 673. That’s 1 800 ED HOPE. Butterfly Let’s Talk is produced for Butterfly Foundation by Ikin Media with the support of the wonderful Warratah Education Foundation.
I’m Sam Ikin.

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