Peer Support is an evidence-based model for providing long-term care for people with a variety of illnesses, including mental illness. Perhaps the most well-known example of the Peer Support model can be found in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other 12-step programs. It is also used in a variety of other contexts, including rape victim support groups, eating disorder treatment, and to provide help for victims of domestic violence.
How Peer Support Works
Peer Support is premised on the idea that no one can understand the difficulties of someone with a mental illness as well as another person who has struggled with mental illness. A person in crisis is guided and supported by their peers who may once have been in crisis but no longer are. The assumption here is that someone who was able to get out of a crisis situation has a unique perspective to offer to someone currently in crisis.
Peer Support and Respect for Mental Health Consumers
A critical component of Peer Support is agency. Often when people are receiving medical treatment, whether it be for diabetes or for a mental illness, they feel that they aren’t heard by their doctors. The doctors are the authorities and the patient is the person who much passively comply with the doctor’s orders. Given that many people who struggle with mental illness have been victims of abuse, this can be especially difficult for them to handle. Equally important is the fact that not all advice about mental health will apply to all people, and thus a dialogue about living with mental illness is often more useful than a list of orders from a doctor. The peer support model is an empowering model that allows a consumer of mental health services to engage in constructive dialogue about what will work best for their life, needs, and situation. Peer support is culturally sensitive, can be adjusted to the circumstances of each consumer of mental health, and can be utilized by anyone.
Peer Support Specialists
In recent years, some mental health consumers have gotten training as peer specialists. These consumers and now experts may run alcoholics anonymous meetings, help at group homes, or staff crisis hotlines. Peer support specialists have received training in helping people through crises, developing plans, and examining treatment options. They are not merely people who have struggled with mental illness but are also experts in mental illness by virtue of their lived experience and training.
Who Can Use Peer Support
It is worth noting peer support does not preclude traditional medical treatment and is often used as a helpful supplement to psychiatric care, including at psychiatric hospitals. Addictions have been treated fairly effectively with just peer support, and survivors of traumatic events have had much success with group support. People suffering from mental illness typically require some sort of professional assistance. However, peer support can be used as an aid to this care and can also be used to help keep a mental health consumer in recovery and well being long after therapy and psychiatric care have ended.