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Peer support: Providing empathetic care based on lived experiences


Diverse group of young adults sitting in a support circle smiling with two people shaking hands

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 22.8% of adults – amounting to 57.8 million people – suffered from some kind of mental health illness in the US in 2021. No matter what way you look at it, this is a huge cross-section of society. 


Unsurprisingly, it is an enormous challenge to provide support for the individuals who need it. Although there are a huge number of resources out there, ensuring that everyone gets access to those resources is another matter. Mental Health America publishes a report every year ranking the different states in terms of access to mental health support. 


While it’s clear a lot of good work is done, there are glaring holes where resources are tight or individuals are being let down for one reason or another. No matter how much we (as a society) are doing, there is always more to be done. 


In an effort to bridge this gap, there are many initiatives or approaches that we can take. We have spoken before about mental health courts and how the justice system can be used as a force for change. We’ve also focused on mental health in the workplace, looking at the role employers can play in helping their staff


Another approach that is proving highly effective, particularly on an emotional level, is peer support. But what is this and how can it help individuals suffering from mental health challenges?


What is peer support?


In essence, peer support is a broad number of activities or even just interactions that take place between two individuals who have similar mental health conditions. The beauty of this approach is that the person providing the support (often known as the peer support worker) has an innate understanding of what the other is going through. 


This is what is known as “peerness,” and is a strong tool in building an emotional connection and inspiring hope in individuals. The peer support worker’s unique position means they are better able to understand, empathize, and come up with effective strategies. 


Access to peer support


Many people who could benefit from peer support aren’t aware that it exists. While this approach is open to all walks of life and mental health backgrounds, the people who find peer support most useful are those who struggle to find help. 


In fact, a reported 45% of individuals who have a clinical-level mental health problem go without seeking help. What’s the reason for this? According to one report, the principal reasons are because people don’t know where to turn for help or believe it won’t make a difference. 


Stigma is also an issue, although less than we might believe. The same report found that only 25% of individuals who failed to seek help believe that this is the reason for not doing so. 


Different types of peer support


Peer support can come in different forms, as the UK Mental Health Foundation points out


Online support

It could be as simple as online forums where like minded individuals share their experiences. Anonymity can help people to open up and share their experiences in a more honest manner. 


An example of an online forum that we endorse at MHAI is Health and Help Chat. By getting in touch, you will be connected to their peer support network made up of others who struggle with similar challenges. There are also more traditional therapy options, and even online therapist bots. 


Mentoring 

Other types of peer support include mentoring or befriending, which is a one-on-one situation where you are assigned a specific individual. 


Warm lines

Illinois offers a peer-based warm line service, which is available from 8:00 am - 8:00 pm, Monday – Saturday. It is open to anyone and you will be put in contact with people who identify as individuals in recovery from substance use or mental health challenges. 


If you would like to use this line, simply call: 866-359-7953.


Group sessions

Finally, you can have a peer-support group setting, where trained professionals – who also have a personal history of illness – will run support sessions. Group Hope is an organization that offers peer support services of this type. Each week, they offer two free teenage support meetings and five adult-based support meetings for depression and bipolar.


For other resources in your state, please visit the Mental Health of America peer support page.


A new type of mental health support


Regardless of the reasons people don’t seek out help, peer support has the benefit of being an entirely different experience compared to help from licensed therapists or counselors. Often, the sessions have a more personal focus, with group sessions structured around each individual’s experience. 


That said, no two groups are the same. We recommend asking questions before joining to find out if the structure is right for you. This could include the number of participants (if a group meeting), who is the group leader, and how the sessions have been structured. In some cases, you can also bring a friend or loved one if you are feeling vulnerable – depending on the group leader or nature of the illness.


Would you like to become a peer support worker?


There is always a demand for more peer support workers. While anyone can provide support to a loved one, peer support specialists who work in any kind of official capacity will generally need some kind of certification – although this can vary depending on your state. For example, Illinois requires you to have a high school diploma, GED, or higher degree and a number of training requirements, including at least 100 hours of training.


MHAI strongly supports peer-based approaches for addressing mental health challenges. It is a rewarding experience that can help the support worker on their road to recovery as much as those they are helping. 


If you would like to become a peer support worker, you can find out more about getting certified here

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