Peer Support: Helping Others, Healing Yourself
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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