January 19, 2022
Dispatches From Peer Providers: The Essential Role of Peer Support
By Rhea Wolf, Peer Wellness Specialist at Rockwood Respite
Peer Providers are people with lived experience of mental health challenges who undergo extensive training to learn tools to support others receiving services in the mental healthcare system or peer-run organizations.
I’ve been working as a Peer Wellness Specialist (PWS) at Rockwood Respite since June 2020. I work at a site that offers 24/7 support to those who are experiencing a mental health crisis or stabilizing from a recent crisis.
I became a PWS after beginning my recovery from my last major mental health crisis. The mutual support shared between myself and others at the hospitals, Intensive Outpatient Programs, and peer-led groups were vital to my recovery. People who understand what it’s like living with mental health challenges — the intensity, the desperation, the hopelessness — are uniquely positioned to offer compassion to one another. We share tips and tricks to get through the pain, cry or laugh together at the absurdity of it all, and offer hope and encouragement for getting and staying well.
Don’t get me wrong — clinical and therapeutic efforts have helped as well. But it was the companionship of others like me that decreased my sense of isolation and helped me shed the idea that I was abnormal or sick. I am not sick (and studies have yet to show conclusively any biomedical reason for mental health challenges), but I do frequently struggle with a perception of the world that is quite intense and often painful. Connecting with others who have similar experiences makes me know I am not alone.
When I work with someone, I try to be open and curious. I don’t often read the notes or collaterals before I meet someone I’m going to work with. Sometimes, even just knowing a diagnosis can lead us to take leaps about a person’s experience or capabilities. The clinical perspective can have great tools to offer, but often someone with a mental health diagnosis is viewed through the lens of disease, and we may find the complexity of who we are being reduced to mere symptoms. I’ve heard from many people with the diagnosis of schizophrenia, for example, that when they were given this diagnosis, they were also told that they would never live “normal” lives (whatever that means).
Instead, I introduce myself to the person and let them tell me what they want to share with me. We can discuss our past or current experiences, create goals, and focus on wellness tools that make sense to them.
The Peer Support movement arose in the 1970s when psychiatric survivors and others who felt stigmatized by a mental health diagnosis came together to offer one another support. Of course, much of the peer movement owes a debt to the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and its use of peer support in recovery from alcohol dependence. In addition to offering hope and sharing in a journey of recovery, peer providers and others involved in the peer movement work for civil rights and advocate for more humane treatment of those living with a mental health challenge.
For over five decades, peer support has gained traction within the mental healthcare system as an evidence-based, recovery-oriented part of care. Currently, there are over 24,000 peer providers working in every U.S. state and territory. At the heart of Peer Support is the idea that everyone is capable of recovery, and what that recovery looks like is determined by each individual.
Overall, studies have found that peer support:
- Decreases morbidity and mortality rates
- Increases life expectancy
- Increases knowledge of a diagnosis
- Improves self-efficacy
- Improves self-reported health status and self-care skills
- Reduces use of emergency services
Additionally, providers of peer support report less depression, heightened self-esteem and self-efficacy, and improved quality of life.