What is peer support? How can this help mental health therapy?


Rayshell Chambers was afraid to talk about his mental health issues.

The first time she was hospitalized was when she was 14 years old. She was an A-level student and a long-distance runner, but she felt isolated and nervous all the time. She didn’t know how to get help, so she took pills.

“I don’t know if I would have gone to a counselor and said, ‘Oh, I feel sad’, because I don’t know if they would have told my [mom], “she said.” I wasn’t ready to tell my mom that I was feeling down because I just wanted to look normal. “

She said she was lucky her mother took care of her and put her in therapy, but looking back, she thinks she would have benefited from talking to a peer, someone who has lived experience and learned to deal with mental illness.

Chambers is the co-founder and COO of Painted Brain, a peer-run mental health nonprofit. Now she talks to everyone about her bipolar disorder and multiple hospitalizations. It’s part of his job.

“We tell people if you need someone to talk to us,” Chambers said. “We’ve been there. Most of us have been hospitalized and placed in boarding and care. And now we have full time jobs. We operate. Most of us take our medications or find other ways to cope. “

What is peer support?

“A big part of a peer helper’s job is to use self-disclosure to benefit the people we serve,” said Guyton Colantuono, executive director of the Project Return Peer Support Network, “as this can reduce the risk factor. isolation from life with sanity. [challenges], serve as an example of recovery in practice and de-stigmatize [issues around] Mental Health.”

He said typical peer support services include:

  • Provide individual support and lead self-help groups.
  • Help people develop a Well-Being Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).
  • Help clients access resources.
  • Help people get to their appointments.
  • Advocacy for members.

An illustration of Amer Azad, one of the original members of the art group that evolved into Painted Brain, a nonprofit mental health organization.

(Amer Azad)

“It’s the shift from a clinical support model to a social support model,” said Reham Shalaby, a graduate student in psychiatry at the University of Alberta who wrote a 2020 report on effectiveness. peer support as a service that helps bridge the gaps between people. with mental illnesses and health professionals.

The idea is that peers can help patients re-integrate into society and become more engaged in a community – and also provide a safety net to catch them before they fall.

Shalaby also led a study that measured how patients recently released from acute psychiatric care responded to the addition of peer support, as well as a supportive text messaging program, and found that it made patients more confident, hopeful and willing to ask for help.

“I think it’s critical to understand that peer support services have been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism in the most expensive and restrictive parts of our system, such as hospitals, prisons and the homeless.” , Colantuono said.

“It supports clinical work,” Chambers said. “Because you have an interdisciplinary team of clinicians working hand in hand with peers to build trust, to bring peers into care. “

How peer support evolved

Peer support has always been an essential part of recovery from mental illness, in the same way that alcoholics find fellowship with other AA members and breast cancer survivors support those in treatment. But it has always been seen as volunteer work.

Sally Zinman, executive director of the California Assn. peer-run mental health organizations, helped launch the first state-wide peer-run organization in the 1970s.

“We saw ourselves as a civil rights movement,” she said. “We were advocating for the rights of people who have had an experience, for services that meet their needs,” she said. “Not just the medical model, but more holistic services based on real needs. … It’s a whole different way of looking at mental health instead of just “you have a chemical imbalance and need a pill”.

Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 803, the Peer Support Specialist Certification Program Act, which is the first step in professionalizing the work of peer support specialists.

California will be the 49th state to allow billing for these services through Medicare and Medicaid. The State Department will establish requirements for these programs – including a standardized curriculum, training, and certification – by July 2022.

Suicide prevention and crisis counseling resources

If you or someone you know is suffering from thoughts of suicide, seek professional help and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Text “HOME” to 741741 in the United States and Canada to join the Crisis Text Line.

It’s empowering people with mental health issues to have peer support as a potential career path, Chambers said.

It is a profession where they can be transparent about their challenges, be surrounded by people who understand their difficulties and take pride in their ability to help people who remind them of their past.

“I’m happy to be here,” Chambers said. “I can say to scared little Rayshell, ‘Oh, you should watch what you’re doing now,'” she said. “‘You are strong. Someone loves you. You are appreciated. You have a community. You have a connection. You know where you can get help. And you know, it’s okay to feel crazy. sometimes. It’s okay to be afraid. “


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