Peer support is getting help from someone who has been there. People with similar experiences may be able to listen, give hope and guidance toward recovery in a way that is different, and may be just as valuable, as professional services. Peer services include mutual support groups, peer-run programs and services in traditional mental health agencies provided by peer support specialists. While peer support groups may be composed entirely of people who have simply learned through their own experience, some types of peer providers undergo training and certification to qualify. In addition to direct services, many peer-run organizations advocate to improve opportunities for people recovering from mental illnesses.
A peer support group is a voluntary gathering of people with similar challenges, usually weekly or monthly for an hour or two, to share experiences and coping strategies and offer understanding. NAMI Connection is one type of peer support group in which trained facilitators, who themselves have lived experience with mental illness, guide group members to listen and provide supportive, meaningful feedback to each other.
Peer recovery education is structured instruction taught by people who have lived experience of mental illness and can take place in a single session or series of lessons. Peer education can include information such as the process of recovery, wellness and self-care, symptoms and diagnoses of mental illness, what to expect from professional mental health services, coping skills and self-advocacy. NAMI Peer-to-Peer is a 10-session course taught by trained peer teachers, and is an example of peer recovery education. The Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), a widely recognized self-assessment and planning program, is a peer education process that can take place in one or more sessions.
Peer-run services are mental health programs where the staff uses information, skills and resources they have gained in their recovery to help others. Peer services are based on principles of empowerment, choice, mutual help and recovery. The goal of peer-run programs is to create a supportive place in which people can find understanding peers, can learn recovery skills and can help others. Common types of peer-run programs include, but are not limited to:
Drop-in or peer support center: for friendship, peer counseling, recovery learning and skill-building, wellness supports, community-based activities and connection to services. Often open in evenings and weekends as well as during the business day, peer support centers serve as a “home away from home.”
Peer mentoring, peer case management: On a one-to-one basis, certified peer support specialists listen, help plan recovery and help identify supporters. Peer mentoring can occur at a center or in the community. Peer mentors not only teach coping skills, but also emphasize physical wellness through careful attention to sleep, good nutrition, stress management and social support.
Peer-providers in traditional mental health programs
Peer support is gaining acceptance as a valuable part of service delivery in professional inpatient and community-based services. Medicaid and public mental health systems increasingly pay for services provided by certified peer support specialists as part of the service delivery team. The peer support specialist may be able to connect on the same level as the person, offer information and guidance from within the person’s frame of reference and help the person navigate the service system to obtain income, housing, treatment and social support. Peer support may be particularly valuable for people who mistrust professionally delivered services. Service models such as Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) require inclusion of a peer support specialist as part of the team.
How can I find peer support services? Peer support services are increasingly common and are often provided at little to no cost. Ask your NAMI State Organization, NAMI Affiliate, local department of mental health or community mental health center where to locate these resources.
Peer Support Among Adults With Serious Mental Illness: A Report From the Field. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 32(3), 443-450. http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org/content/32/3/443.full
On Our Own Together: Peer Programs for People with Mental Illness (book) edited by Sally Clay
Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). http://www.mentalhealthrecovery.com/
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