Getting Peer Support for Mental Health (My Eye-Opening Experience)

Jordan Brown

You're in a bad mood and can't snap out of it.

Would you rather have a stern-looking older guy telling you what to do?

Or would you rather get help from a friend?

From someone who has been through what you're currently dealing with?

OK, maybe that's not a fair question.

But it gets at something important.

Often, what we need to improve our mental health is not more professionals with years and years of education--but peer support.

There are several key reasons why peer support can be more effective than other types of mental health care.

In just a few minutes, you'll learn those reasons from a powerful story and know how they can apply to your life.

Comparing Peer Support Services and Traditional Mental Health Services

First, let's define peer support services so that we're on the same page.

Peer support services are provided by a peer support specialist--that is, someone who has lived experience in a particular problem area. They use their life experiences to coach and guide others through their challenges.

I focus on mental health conditions with The Mental Health Update, but a peer support specialist could also lend their experiences when it comes to physical health or addictions issues, which, depending on how you look at it, are also mental health issues.

Peer support workers are often looked down on because they don't have the same "education" that other mental health professionals have.

But they actually have the one type of education that is most important.

Life education.

Lived experience.

If your question is, "How do I regain my quality of life?" a peer support worker has probably grappled with that same question and can show you how to get there.

If your question is, "What should I do about this depression issue?" then a professional might say, "Well, here's some information and some medicine."

And while that may be helpful at one particular point in time, it doesn't really address the core questions that people ask themselves every day they live with mental health challenges:

What am I actually going to do next?

How will I feel tomorrow?

When I was in the hospital for depression, I felt embarrassed that I ended up there.

I was grateful for good treatment from medical professionals, including a psychiatrist who finally gave me the correct diagnoses after years of my searching for answers.

But do you know what clapped my brain like a thunderbolt?

It was a few comments during the first two days from a mental health specialist who was also a peer support worker.

He talked to me about how he had also been in the hospital for mental health issues at one point and reassured me that it was a mere blip on the radar. He got me thinking about all the great things I would be doing after I left the hospital. He asked me about my interests. He saw me for me.

This is the great impact of peer support.

Later in my hospital stay, doctors also tried to talk to me about my interests, but one comment stood out.

One particular doctor, a hospitalist assigned to the inpatient mental health unit, asked me about my hobbies and things I would do to regain my confidence and mental strength.

I talked to her about my love for writing and about how I would spend time writing about my experiences.

Her response was jarring.

She said, "Well, don't torture yourself, though. You need something that will help you relax."

I know that this doctor was not bad at her job. In fact, she was extremely well versed in the scientific underpinnings of my condition.

But she never took the time to understand me as a person.

She responded to my statement from her own worldview instead of trying to understand mine.

The difference in response--and received benefits-- I got from the peer support service professional versus the traditional health professional should now be apparent.

Is Peer Support the Future?

There are peer support programs all over the world, although they typically struggle to find professional support and funding because they are not valued as highly as the quantifiable, professional mental health supports that people are used to.

I think that's a shame.

Peer support is not the only answer, but it can save lives and enrich them by giving them meaning and hope.

I don't believe that we will ever have enough therapists and psychiatrists to meet the massive mental health challenges we face on this planet.

Even if we did, would they be affordable?

Would the people who need those services be able to access them?

Probably not.

This is where peer support services come in.

Peer support services have one undeniable strength that western-based, medicine-model services lack.

They meet people where they are.

They start from a place of empathy and understanding.

They don't judge and prescribe.

They join and uplift.

The peer support specialists in this world empower others by walking alongside them.

To meet the mental health needs of indigenous groups in Alaska or rural populations in Africa, we will need peer support programs.

Highly trained professionals have their place.

Medicine can be a necessary tool.

But peer support is everlasting.

Whenever I've been hurting the most, the people who knew how to cheer me up were the ones who viewed me as their peer.