What Is Peer Support in the Mental Health System?

In the U.S., there is a growing trend of using peer supporters to help people suffering from bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental health issues. There is a general misconception, however, about the role of peer support in recovery. In some people’s minds, peer support is a replacement for traditional medical treatments and therapies.

Before I explain how peer supporters can help a person have better outcomes when managing severe and persistent mental illness, I want to explain exactly what peer support is and is not.

What Peer Support Is Not

When first hearing about peer support, people wonder or outright assume that these services were designed to replace traditional medical treatments. There’s a presumption that people with mental illness believe they can help each other reach recovery and therefore no longer need/want therapy provided by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other licensed mental health professional. Some people go as far to believe that peer support is designed to replace medication treatments.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Simply stated, peer support is not a replacement for medication, therapy, or visits to your doctor.

So, if it doesn’t replace any of those resources, then what good is it? What function does it serve?

What Exactly Is Peer Support?

Peer support was designed as a complementary service designed to fill gaps in our system of care, much in the same way that cancer support groups were designed to help people living with cancer to cope – not to replace oncologists.

Per Wikipedia, peer support is defined as:

Peer support occurs when people provide knowledge, experience, and emotional, social or practical help to each other. It commonly refers to an initiative consisting of trained supporters (although it can be provided by peers without training), and can take a number of forms such as peer mentoring, listening, or counseling.

More specifically, peer supporters facilitate support groups, answer basic questions, and provide a listening ear when people need someone to talk to. Because peer supporters are not medical providers – and therefore are not seen as authority figures — most people find it generally easier to make a connection. The relationship between them is based on a mutual understanding of one another’s shared perspective.

Real World Example of Peer Support

Peer supporters are being used more and more frequently in emergency rooms, where long waits are, unfortunately, quite common. When someone walks in feeling isolated, scared, and/or suicidal and then is asked to wait alone for a long period of time, the outcome is often less than ideal.

Instead of asking that person to wait alone, they are paired with a peer supporter who not only listens to that person and provides much needed reassurance, but also explains hospital policies and procedures. When the patient does see the doctor, they are less anxious because they have this better understanding, as well as a trusted ally in their corner.

The benefits to the patient are obvious, but consider the benefits to the hospital. Emergency room doctors report that they spend considerable time calming patients before they can even begin to provide actual medical care. Since the peer supporter has already done that, doctors can focus more on treatment.

Additionally, the overall time a medical provider will need to spend with a patient to gain an accurate assessment will decrease, which means others will spend less time in the waiting room.

Peer Support is Not a New Concept

Peer support has always existed in our society. People with similar experiences have always gotten together to support each other, whether formally or informally. As an example, there are peer support groups for public speaking, weight loss, small business owners, and just about anything else you can think of.

It’s only now getting to the mental health community because, for the longest time, society didn’t believe that people with mental illness could offer much of anything.

Thankfully, that is changing.

Gabe Howard is a popular speaker, writer, and advocate who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is an award-winning writer and the creator of the official bipolar shirt. (Get yours now!) Gabe can be reached on Facebook, via email, or via his website, www.GabeHoward.com.