This past week I was in Cotonou for “PSN” Training. PSN stands for Peer Support Network.
The peer support network is a group of 12 volunteers chosen to act as a support system for the rest of the volunteers in country. In the training manual it is described as “a group of PCVs selected and trained to provide emotional support to their peers in concert and cooperation with the Peace Corps staff of the country. The goal is to provide quality support in a manner that enhances the potential and the productivity of the PCV in their service to the people of their Peace Corps country."
The training was great. Even though it was only two days, I couldn't help being reminded of the different Peer Mediation and Peer Support trainings that I had attended when I was younger. We practiced listening skills and how to keep a conversation going. We talked about how to recognize when a situation is dangerous and requires outside help. We learned how to help when someone is grieving. We talked about alternative stress reliefs to recommend if we feel that someone might be developing a drinking problem. After a lot of really helpful discussions we practiced having conversations with one another, using different scenarios that might come up. We learned about the different resources that Peace Corps Washington has available to us, hotlines and emotional counseling that are free for PCVs (and definitely under advertised – since this was the first time I remember hearing of any of this).
Peace Corps is generally a high stress job.. and volunteers are constantly teetering on an emotional roller-coaster. During our training last year, we had a session where we were given a chart showing where we should be emotionally at different months during our service. The majority of our first year of service.. we are expected to feel unhappy, stressed, depressed, and worthless. The second year (according to the chart) gets better. Currently we are supposed to be going through mid-service crisis followed by many months of feeling adjusted and satisfied with our work. On top of that it is time for us to start looking into our plans for after Peace Corps.. there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I think I may have had my mid-service crisis early... and while things might not always go exactly as planned here in village, I feel well adjusted, and the projects I am doing I am happy with. So that is good.
That being said, since we are so often below the “Happy and Content Line.” Having a group of peers who are not only willing but also trained how to successfully help each other get through these funks is useful to both us and to administration who may not be as well equipped to deal with situations that they can't completely relate to. Since we are going through the same (or similar) situations as each other, we are better prepared to give advice than a host country national on staff, or an RPCV who works in the office and lives a city life in Benin. While these people are obviously awesome and do a great job keeping the system running.. their lives are much much different than ours and sometimes it can be hard to relate.
Aside from functioning as a phone line. PSN also holds events, does fundraisers, and goes on site visits to make sure the new volunteers are settling in well when they first go to their posts. We sell t-shirts, candy-grams, and host bake sales. We host regional “wellness weekends” at the workstations where volunteers can sign up to come, and eat a healthy dinner, do yoga or go running, attend arts and crafts sessions, and watch movies (to name a few activities). These events are often focused around holidays where people might be feeling more stressed than normal due to homesickness.. such as Christmas or Valentine's day.
I am excited for this coming year with our 2013-2014 PSN team. We have some great ideas and are looking forward to planning a celebration for the 10th Anniversary of the Peer Support Network in Benin in February. I think we have an amazing team with lots of diverse personalities and interests. It is going to be a really awesome year.