October 15, 2015

By Michael Weaver

On Oct. 15, peer supporters across the globe will acknowledge the development and success of their work by recognizing the first Global Peer Supporter Celebration Day. This day recognizes the tremendous success of the use of peer support in addressing mental health and addiction challenges. It is now recognized as a major component mental health care around the world.

At noon on Oct. 15, 2015 there will be a variety of celebrations around the world, including:

  • Proclamations from State, County and City Governments
  • Presentations by peers, family members and providers
  • Panel discussions
  • Poetry
  • Balloon releases
  • Celebrations accompanied by refreshments
  • Displays of artwork
  • Musical performances

As Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed, “Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?” This is the essence of peer support.

Peer support is a specialty that approaches those who experience mental health and substance abuse challenges in a way that moves them away from interpreting their lives as a series of problems or “symptoms.” It helps them to instead see themselves as decision makers, having a wellness identity and being able to pursue recovery.

Peer Support Specialists are individuals who have lived experience with mental illness or addictions and have completed training on assisting their peers seeking help. The first question a peer support specialist asks is not “what are your problems?” but “what are your hopes and dreams?”

The foundation of peer support is recovery. Recovery is a journey based on the ideas of high expectations, hope, empowerment, self-determination, interdependence and critical thinking. Recovery is not an absence of symptoms or cravings, but a management of them in order to have an increasingly better quality of life. Recovery is knowing who you are and using your strengths to become all that you were meant to be.

The specialists share aspects of their story that help individuals feel less alone and experience a sense of hope. The relationship is important in helping individuals reduce their feelings of stigma and shame, which are often associated with having a diagnosis. They serve as important role models for their peers. A quote from SAMSHA’s Building a Foundation for Recovery report I believe said it best: “When people do not see recovery as part of their lives, they need to be surrounded with possibilities of recovery.”

A main priority for Peer Support Specialists is engaging with their peers with empathy, support, respectful language and a non-judgmental attitude. The specialist encourages growth through healthy risk-taking so that the peer can experience a more independent lifestyle. Peer support maximizes the person’s strength rather than focusing on eliminating problems.

Although peer support has proven to be very successful in addressing mental health and substance use, it is often challenging. A report from Recovery Innovations said, “Peer support is about being an expert on not being an expert and that takes a lot of expertise!” Peer support allows the individual to remain the experts about their own mental health.

Attention is given to assisting peers in developing wellness plans, which addresses triggers and signs that the person’s life is breaking down. Help is given to peers in the development of personalized crisis plans and psychiatric advanced directives. Peer support addresses person-centered goals of acquiring education, employment, friends, relationships, financial literacy and homes. The goal does include management and reduction of symptoms but also concentrates on “having a life” aside from psychiatric or addictive challenges. Peer support provides for step-downs in services allowing for increased self-management and less dependence on services.

There has been a lot of growth from the days when psychiatric survivors, who left long-term institutions, formed informal clubhouses and support groups to where in many states and countries it is now a certified profession. NAMI is a strong source of peer support through NAMI Peer-to-Peer and through hundreds of NAMI Connection support groups across the country.


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