Peer Support: Helping Others, Healing Yourself

By Trish Richert | Aug. 06, 2018

 

No two peer support groups are the same—each is as unique as a snowflake or a finger print.

A peer support group is a regular gathering of men and women with the lived experience of mental illness. Usually once each month, these individuals come together, overseen by a trained peer support specialist or facilitator, to talk with one another about their experiences, struggles and challenges. The support group becomes an anchor for them as they recover from their illnesses and develop skills to live more effectively in their communities. A peer support group is a freeing experience, as these individuals realize “I am not alone,” and hope and trust grow between them.

Most adults with mental illness aren’t used to talking about their conditions in social situations. But a peer support group, possibly unlike anywhere else for the participants, is a judgment- and stigma-free zone, so they’re more open to sharing. Participants also know that they’re equipped to offer advice to each other and help troubleshoot problems because of their shared lived experiences. Who better to offer inspirational, candid messages than someone who’s been there?

  • “You are not your disorder.”
  • “You are a person, not a problem.”
  • “Your condition does not define you.”

These opinions are best received when coming from people who have walked in those shoes and seen the world through those eyes.

What Makes an Effective Peer Support Group? 

A peer support group’s “success” is not dependent on the same participants staying together indefinitely. No, a successful peer group remains effective even as participants come and go and the group’s chemistry and dynamic changes.

What makes a peer support group truly effective and successful is when participants show—by example—how to be honest, empathetic and compassionate towards one another. And a strong, confident facilitator is crucial to how successfully group participants acquire these qualities. 

A great facilitator functions as more than a peacekeeper or clock-watcher. Just as the mark of good parenting is to help your children become independent, move out and move on, so too is the responsibility of the peer support group facilitator. A good facilitator, like a good parent, teaches confidence and assertiveness, and strengthens each participants’ unique skills so they can outgrow the need for a peer group. The ultimate goal is to transfer their new confidence and skills into the community at large.

Unfortunately, though, not everyone who attends a peer support group will succeed. Participants must be open-minded and willing to change. They must learn, practice active listening and try to build friendships and camaraderie within the group. A participant who is unable to accept honest, constructive feedback from others likely will not thrive. Even the best-equipped facilitators and the most well-meaning peers cannot help someone who resists recognizing their problems.

An Unexpected Surprise

While men and women come to peer support groups for comfort and advice, they are often surprised to find a sense of worth through becoming a mentor to others—a feeling they might be experiencing for the first time. A person’s lived experience, which might have only been seen as a burden thus far, transforms into lessons of hope and accomplishment. Group members who have been ostracized and isolated and struggling for years can be viewed as a warrior—respected and emulated in their fight for a better life. 

No longer simply dismissed, participants are saluted by their peers, and leave at the end of meetings with a sense of value and worth they might be unaccustomed to. Often, participants achieve confidence and a sense of value through the support and hope they offer others.

Many studies provide solid evidence that participation in peer support groups reduces reliance on formal services for those in recovery. Unlike hospitalization or institutionalization, peer support groups give participants a sense of exercising control over the quality and direction of their lives. By developing a relationship of trust with their peers, they will work with one another to create plans for responding to challenges and taking care of themselves beyond the group. After all, succeeding beyond the group is the ultimate goal of peer support.

 

Trish Richert owns and manages Strike the Write Tone, offering freelance editing, proofreading, and research services for a wide range of nonfiction, academic, and creative nonfiction texts. Trish is the chair of the Steering Committee, NAMI Maryville (TN), trained family support educator, education and outreach coordinator, community education program developer, and press liaison.

 



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Comments
Marilyn
Dbsalliance.org is the national website for DBSA Depression Bipolar Support Alliance.
DBSA provides information on depression and bipolar disorder, online tools, and support groups across the USA. Find help from the leading national organization for people with mood disorders.
9/7/2018 12:09:07 PM

Timothy Logan
I remember in high school I had a conversation with a friend that I Wiil never forget. We shared with each other in a way i had never experienced before it was total acceptance, I felt validated completely and totally free from judgement. Those are the connections that i crave.
8/29/2018 11:11:21 PM

Marie
I live in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago. I would also like to find a peer support group in my area. It would be nice to talk to other people who are going thru the same thing.
8/29/2018 10:53:28 AM

Tim
Great post! I have found that peer groups are very valuable to me for learning to cope with my depression. The services I get from my psychiatrist and my therapist are different than support from others who have been through the same things as me. We can relate to each other in a different way than to professionals and we can offer insights that professionals sometimes miss.
8/29/2018 8:45:40 AM

Ingrid Morgan
I would like to be invite everyone to come and walk with me November
!0, 2018 at Tradewinds Park- 3600 West Sample Road- Coconut Creek, Florida. I also will like everyone on my Team Morgan Team Of Hope-www.namiwalks.org. come out to help us eliminate the stigma of mental illness. Lets help people to see us as a person and not the illness.If you cant make it you can always donate its to keep all of the wonderful programs free of cost.
8/27/2018 4:56:53 PM

Debra Rilea
For Pemny, it looks like NAMI Southern Nevada has 4 support groups in Las Vegas. Hope one of them works for you.Here's the link from their website and the office phone is (702) 219-1675
https://namisouthernnevada.org/support-groups/
8/26/2018 3:01:28 PM

Pemny
I would like to find a local group. I have anxiety, depresson and PTSD. I live in Las Vegas NV.
8/18/2018 4:59:28 PM

Lisa
I have both benefited from attending a support group and then today facilitating groups. I'm a true believer in recovery through building new relationships and educating yourself and others about mental health.
8/17/2018 2:49:54 PM

Betsy Wolff
Hello, At my church, I convene two groups for women challenged by depression and anxiety. We meet twice a month. I would love suggestions on books we can read and discuss, curricula, Bible studies etc. Many thanks for your help. Betsy
8/14/2018 5:40:28 PM

Ressie
Thank you for such a GREAT post!
I think that more diversity would be so much helpful in the groups. We are peers in terms of our disease but you have to agree that we are not peers in the lens of race and gender I need to see and hear from those who look like me also. While gender is not an issue race is. African Americans are seldom in our classes, and support groups why is this? This only adds to the issue of under representations.
8/13/2018 2:54:14 PM

Pauline Carroll
Hi just curious if there is a free dbt/bpd support groups in the area? Chat groups only do so much and my insurance dropped my dbt classes so I'm thinking about starting a support group in the fayetteville area.
8/13/2018 11:51:38 AM