By Sybren Bouwsma
Explanation of theory/project
This article refers to how an Erasmus+ Youth Exchange (YE) for people with a similar disability can help to increase their positive mental health. The experience of youth exchanges for young people who stutter is used as an example, with a particular focus on the value of peer support. In this context, we will take a closer look at the ideas of Thoits (2011) about how social support of people with shared experiences (‘similar others’) can help in active coping assistance, social influence and emotional sustenance and how these experiences relate to the theoretical model of this project. At the end of the article you will find a personal reflection about what is required from youth workers to fully explore the benefit of peer support during an Erasmus+ Youth Exchange.
Biographical information and context
The author, Sybren Bouwsma, has experience in organising youth exchanges for people who stutter. Participants come from different countries and are 18-30 years old. They all have a different background, but they share a common experience in that they all have a stutter (see figure 1). These youth exchanges provide a unique experience for participants to meet, sometimes for the first time in their lives, someone else who stutters, creating a direct feeling of connectedness and belonging. These meetings with ‘peers’ (other young people who stutter) from different countries, which often lead to a long-lasting form of peer support, help young people to better cope with their speech impediment, as well as becoming more active in different fields of society. For many of the participants, these youth exchanges are a life-changing experience.
Peer support in Youth Exchanges for young people with a disability
Young people with disabilities have a hard time developing positive mental health, since their disability or condition causes them to feel different and not completely understood by their social environment. Examples of problems young people with a disability deal with are stigma, bullying, and social exclusion. These problems make it harder to build up self-esteem and a positive self-image, and to find a place in society (e.g. jobs and relationships). Peer contact can help to counter these problems by helping young people to better cope with a disability or condition, building up a support network and helping them to take a more active role in society. Peers with a disability who are succeeding in different areas of their lives can serve as examples, giving participants the opportunity to think “if this person who also has my condition can do this, then I can give it a try as well’.
Different forms of peer contact
Peer contact can take many different forms, from weekly self-help groups to life buddy support or peer support by telephone or video calls. Equally, peer support can also be between different age groups and with different experiences.
During an Erasmus+ Youth Exchange, participants are away from home for longer than a week and with each other 24 hours a day, meeting people from a variety of backgrounds (culture, language, education) that they would otherwise never meet. Often, participants are challenged to do things they have never done before. These elements can turn Youth Exchanges into intense experiences, as people’s tiredness can lead to potential conflicts, but they can also have a positive effect on group bonding, and a deep sense of common shared experience.
An Erasmus+ YE organised for and with people that share a similar condition or disability provides not only the usual group bonding, but also a unique and positive form of peer support that extends across borders, which can have a big (positive) impact in the young participants’ lives.
What is a European Youth Exchange
The Erasmus+ YE is an international event lasting at least 5 days (very often 7 to 9 days) where at least 16 young participants (under the age of 30) from at least 2 different countries meet each other and learn in a non-formal way.
A Youth Exchange typically has three elements or stages:
- Introduction → getting to know each other and , sharing fears/needs/expectations, to build up a safe environment
- Workshops related to a specific theme, based on non-formal education and learning by doing, to learn new things about a specific topic, but also as a challenge to do something that they have never done before
- Closing and reflection →, reflecting what on what participants take away with them and what next steps can be taken
Once the Youth Exchange has ended, there is often an opportunity to stay in contact and keep sharing experiences (sustainability). More information about the Erasmus+ YE can be found at: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/opportunities/individuals/young-people/youth-exchanges_en or at the National agencies in each partner country: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/contact/national-agencies_en
Experiences from Youth Exchanges with people who stutter
The Erasmus+ Youth Exchange for people with a similar condition can be extremely valuable, particularly due to the social support from peers. This peer support has led to a positive change in the way participants deal with their condition, their self-image and their future perspective.
With regards to the positive change in coping with their speech condition, two participants shared: ‘Always good to know I am not alone, and that it is possible to find peace with my stuttering’ and ‘Now I dare tell people I’m stuttering which I couldn’t do before’.
Very often, it is the first time they meet other people with the same condition – a condition that is habitually associated to a lot of shame. Meeting others who share the same condition can really help young people to better cope with their stuttering in a new way, to know that they are not alone and to help them be more at peace with the condition. A girl who had never spoken about stuttering at work (some co-workers didn’t even know she had a stutter) gave a presentation about stuttering straight after the YE, leading to very positive reactions from colleagues and increased well-being in her workplace.
The change in self-image can be related to the new and sometimes challenging activities (outside their comfort zone) during the YE: ‘I did a lot of things that I never imagined to do. So, now I think that I’m a strong person’. Another participant shared ‘My self image broadened from only a PWS to a person with many qualities’.
In one of the activities held, theatre, young people who had never been on stage before played the main characters at the end of the week. Equally, participants who seemed very shy at the beginning of the exchange gave their own workshop on the last day. These experiences help participants to really see their own qualities and talents, usually “hidden” behind their speech condition.
Regarding the change in future perspective a participant mentioned: ‘I’ve had a dream – to work within education or even being a teacher of some sorts, and support from the stuttering community is worth the most, it makes me feel that perhaps I have potential’.
During a Youth Activity participants almost automatically speak about their studies and job plans, and we do encourage them to do just that in several activities. The dream job of becoming a teacher or studying psychology has come within reach for some people at a youth exchange. Other future perspectives emerge at a more social or societal level, as some young people have met their life partner of have become very active in their national stuttering organization.
As a result of the interpersonal sharing offered by the YE, participants have made life changes. It also boosts their personal development, increases their self-esteem and allows them to feel more socially included. Very often, the peer support continues on for a long time after the YE has ended. At the end of the Youth Exchange, the organizers create a social media group where participants can keep sharing their experiences. Sometimes, even years after the actual YE event, participants are still active within their social media group, supporting each other in various ways.
In the US, research among participants at a 5-day camp for young people who stutter has shown a similar result in terms of the impact of multi-day meetings for young people who stutter (Gerlach et. al., 2019).
Social support as a theoretical approach
We will now take a more theoretical approach to peer support between people with similar experiences or conditions, using the ideas of Thoits (2011). Thoits presents a model with two sources of social support: significant others (e.g. close friends and family) and similar others (e.g. people with whom you share a similar experience) – see figure 1 – and argues that ‘because primary group members are often emotionally invested in the person’s recovery and because they frequently are unfamiliar with the specific demands of the stressor, their information, advice, appraisals, and encouragement are likely to be relatively ineffective at softening its health and mental health consequences. More effective coping assistance should come instead from experientially similar others in the secondary network’ (p. 153), adding ‘The advice, feedback, guidance, and encouragement supplied by experienced others should be more efficacious in buffering the impacts of adversity than the well-intentioned but less well informed coping assistance offered by members of the person’s primary network’ (p. 154).
The help from these ‘similar others’ includes emotional sustenance, active coping assistance and social influence. Firstly, because of their direct personal experience, individuals who identify with vulnerable populations can provide emotional sustenance by tolerating expressions of distress, validating feelings and concerns, and providing empathetic understanding. Secondly, people with similar experiences can engage in active coping by sharing experience-based information, advice, encouragement, and appraisal/feedback, increasing each other’s capacities. ‘Due to past experience, similar others can provide coping assistance that is closely tailored to the exigencies of the problematic situation and known to be effective in solving problems’ (p. 154). Finally, people can exert social influence by serving as role models to others, inspiring hope for the future. The social influence of ‘similar others’ helps to shape the individual’s coping efforts, reducing situational demands and emotional reactions and directly, and perhaps also indirectly, increasing his or her sense of control over life’.
These three forms of support from ‘similar others’ can be very relevant when looking at the value of organising youth exchanges for and with people with a similar disability or condition.
Figure 1. A Proposed Classification of Effective Types of Support by Source (From: Thoits, 2011, p. 153)
There is also a clear reference to peer support in the theoretical model of the Positive Mental Health Project. Peers are part of the second ‘community’ circle of the Theoretical Framework (p. 43). In this article, peers are specifically those who share a specific disability or condition (or ‘similar other’ in the words of Thoits), who spend time together at an international youth exchange. This form of peer support in youth exchanges has a positive mental health impact at the individual, community and societal levels. On an individual level, it can lead to an improvement in self-esteem and better coping, at a community level, it can help to create a positive sense of belonging and at a societal level it can encourage social inclusion and active participation.
This form of intensive peer support can be linked to the individual and societal levels in the Theoretical Framework as well. In that way, peer support with similar others can be linked to the dimensions of social and emotional well-being in the individual inner circle (particularly to ‘How I relate to others’ and ‘How I feel’). And at socio-environmental level, peer support can be linked to a more active citizenship, employability and educational success.
Concerning the different levels of the theoretical framework, the specific form of peer support created during an Erasmus+ Youth Exchange for a specific group of young people with a disability can have a big impact on (positive) mental health of young people with a disability, their communities as well as society itself.
Youth workers and peer support
Finally, I would like to write a few words about the role of a youth worker in peer support as described in this article. In my experience, encouraging peer support at a YE with young people with a similar disability or condition can be very intensive for a youth worker, but also very rewarding.
An interesting question is whether the youth workers should have experience with the condition or disability themselves when involved in this type of Youth Exchange. Although it can certainly help if some of the youth workers have knowledge or experience of the participants’ condition, but this is not an essential requirement: as a youth worker, not having previous knowledge or personal experience with the condition can be very refreshing, where the usual majority of people without the shared disability or condition become the minority. This can lead to a learning experience for all, participants and the youth workers in question. The participants can see the ‘normal’ youth worker as an interesting reference to people in their daily lives who do not have this condition, and the youth worker can look closely at what it really means to have this condition. Both experiences can be very rewarding.
In addition to understanding of the disability or condition, here are some relevant aspects for youth workers in involved in this type of Youth Exchange (in no particular order):
- active listening skills
- ability to create a safe environment where people dare to share
- ability to self-reflect
- ability to ‘challenge’ (without asking too much of the participant)
- observational skills
Gerlach, H., Hollister, J., Caggiano, L., & Zebrowski, P. M. (2019). The Utility of Stuttering Support Organization Conventions for Young People Who Stutter. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 105724.
Thoits, P. A. (2011). Mechanisms Linking Social Ties and Support to Physical and Mental Health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 52(2), 145–161.
Stamily, https://stamily.org/our-philosophy/ a diverse and independent community, consisting of people from all over the world. We are highly diverse, with many different passions, life stories, and goals, but have one thing in common: we stutter.