I’m a doctor. A doctor’s toolbox includes lots of things: medical education and training, license to diagnose, and ability to recognize ailments and prescribe treatment. So when a colleague suggested that unlicensed folks with lived experience might be as good or even better at meeting the needs of people who are struggling with their mental health, you might think that I’d be skeptical. What tools would untrained individuals have in their toolboxes?
To be sure, there is a crucial need for more mental health care support in our country. Today 157 million Americans (48%) live in areas with a shortage of mental health providers. Limited provider capacity means that over half of the 58 million adults with mental illness receive no mental health care at all. That’s more than 29 million! The average wait time to see any mental health provider is 1-3 months, and up to 6 or even 12 months in some places. And for historically underserved communities including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ populations, finding a culturally sensitive provider can be even more challenging.
I have always told my patients that they need to build a village of support around them. And as a physician, I know I need a team around me to take care of patients. As I looked at the literature on peer support, I realized that the model of connecting folks who have lived through the same struggles has been effectively helping people for decades outside of clinical settings. Communities for people who are mutually struggling with grief and addiction, for example, are trusted and commonplace.
No one can better understand what it is like to lose a loved one or to hit rock bottom than someone who has been there too.
It’s why groups of people continue to gather week after week, year after year, in church basements and rec centers, to support each other in ways that friends or doctors never could. It’s why people living with mental illness connect online to support and empower each other.
Lived experience is a tool that only a peer has in their toolbox—and it can be as valuable as a doctor’s handbook or prescription when it comes to mental health.
What kinds of mental health outcomes could be unlocked if peer support was available at scale for folks living with other types of mental health struggles, such as eating disorders, depression, or anxiety?
Peer support is powerful. It’s an evidence-based practice that has been shown to significantly improve mental health outcomes, especially among college-age students and individuals from historically underserved communities, including Black, Transgender, and first-generation college students. Research compiled by Mental Health America shows peer support leads to:
- Increased hopefulness and sense of well-being
- Increased activation
- Increased ongoing engagement with care
- Improved self-care
- Increased social functioning
- Decreased substance use and depression
- Decreased hospitalization, use of in-patient services, and costs to the mental health system
Peer support is the gift of sharing life experiences with someone who is living or has lived your same truth.
Peers model wellness, personal responsibility, self-advocacy and hopefulness by sharing their stories and embodying recovery.
Realizing the value of peer support put me on the path to co-founding Flourish Labs and creating peers.net, where we hire people with experience of mental health challenges and train them to become certified peer supporters. They are then matched with peers to deliver virtual peer support on our telehealth platform. Peers are not therapists or doctors, nor are they “regular people” who can simply “relate.” They are skilled allies who know how to give the support that helped them get to where they are, or that they wish they could have had when they were in the thick of it. Isn’t that a tool everyone deserves to have in their mental health toolbox?