Most people lean on their friends and family from time to time, but turn to experts when the going gets really tough. But while therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists can make diagnoses, prescribe medication, and recommend lifestyle changes based on research, it turns out they're no substitute for a good friend.
Mental health systems throughout the country are increasingly turning to peer support to help people struggling with addiction and mental health issues navigate the storm.
Peer Support in Mental Health
If you've ever called a friend when you were struggling with your diet, called your spouse to vent, or sought advice from someone who has a job similar to your own, you've used peer support. Peer support is simply guidance, empathy, affection, and advice from nonexperts.
In mental health, peer support typically refers to support from people who have faced similar issues. For example, a friend who has struggled with depression might advise you about how she broke free from depression's chains, or a recovering addict family member might recommend ways to avoid cravings.
Peer Support Programs
Mental health professionals, psychiatric hospitals, and rehabilitation clinics are increasingly using peer support to supplement the guidance of mental health professionals. Examples of peer support include:
- Twelve-step meetings for recovering addicts, which many psychiatric hospitals have implemented
- Discussion groups for people in psychiatric settings who are struggling with similar issues
- Group therapy for issues such as eating disorders
- Crisis hotlines with trained “peers” who have struggled with similar issues
- Halfway houses and respite homes designed to help people facing the same issues support and encourage one another
Some treatment providers are even beginning to use professional peer support specialists. In Atlanta's Grady Memorial hospital, for example, certified peer specialists work with psychiatric clients to help them effectively advocate for themselves, make discharge plans, discuss coping strategies, and provide in-person evidence that people can and do recover from mental illness. These peer specialists must have a history of mental health issues or addiction, must be clean and sober for at least a year, and must undergo training as a peer support specialist.
In other states, peer specialists may serve as advocates in psychiatric hospitals, as “sponsors,” or may even be part of a mental health client's treatment team. In some states, there are now peer support centers, where people experiencing mental health crises can go to seek support and guidance.
Benefits of Peer Support
It might seem like peer support is a second-rate alternative to professional care, and not all mental health professionals advocate for peer support models. But peer support is highly effective, particularly when it occurs in conjunction with professional mental health care.
People who receive peer support have access to information that experts might not be able to provide. For example, a recovering addict's sponsor can give him or her an idea of how long cravings will last, offer coping skills for dealing with withdrawal, and reassure him or her that the worst symptoms of addiction do indeed go away.
People who have strong peer support have fewer relapses, are more likely to take their medication, and can more effectively advocate for themselves in the often-confusing mental health system.
- Lead certified peer specialist at Grady. (n.d.). Grady Careers. Retrieved from http://grady.ttcportals.com/jobs/744830-lead-certified-peer-specialist#
- Mead, S., & MacNeil, C. (n.d.). Peer support: What makes it unique? [PDF]. Mental Health Peers.
- Position statement 37: The role of peer support services in the creation of recovery-oriented mental health systems. (n.d.). Mental Health America. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/position-statements/37
- Recovery and peer support model. (n.d.). The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.aota.org/Practitioners/PracticeAreas/EmergingAreas/MH/Recover...