Most of us know teenagers or young adults who struggle with stress, sadness, worry or even more serious mental health issues. We want to be there for them, but that can be hard. How many times have you thought to yourself, “I don’t know how to help them with this”? Or heard them say, “Mama, you just don’t get it,” or, “That therapist doesn’t get me, I’m not going back!” The truth is, sometimes our kids would rather talk to their peers than to us about what’s going on with them.
What if you could connect your kid with a peer who has gone through their own mental health struggles, and has been trained to help others?
Imagine setting your kid up with someone to talk to who is a little ahead of them in their life journey and can provide emotional support, teach skills, and impart knowledge from their life experiences. That is the power of peer support—it’s a chance for someone who is struggling to learn from someone else who is living or has lived their same truth. At Flourish Labs, we believe in peer support because we know it works.
We set up peers.net to make it easier and faster for young people to access support. On our secure online platform, they can book confidential 1 on 1 video sessions with a peer supporter within 48 hours. They can choose a peer supporter who ‘gets it’ because they have experience of similar mental health struggles, and/or share their identity. All our peer supporters are Gen Z, fully trained and certified in peer support, and supervised by our experienced staff. We are currently offering services to people between the ages of 18 and 30, and we’re working on expanding to more ages.
With our newly launched gift service, you can now buy peer support sessions and send them to someone you love. You can buy just one session for them to try it, or buy a bundle and get a discount. It’s as easy as sending someone an Amazon gift card.
How gifting works:
1. You purchase a session or sessions and include a personal message to the recipient
2. We send an email to the recipient with a unique code
3. They use the code to book a session on peers.net and get support
The gifting feature was inspired by parents, but it’s for anyone. If you are a parent, auntie, fairy godmother or friend of someone who could benefit from better mental health support, head over to peers.net and send them the gift of peer support!
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?
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.
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?
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?
I was going to start this post with the data. Over 50 millions Americans have a mental health diagnosis. Over half of them get no care at all. Only 30% get therapy. Because they can’t afford it, because their insurance doesn’t cover it, because of stigma, because they live in a county without a single psychologist (that’s 75% of Americans), because the demand for therapy is growing faster than we can train therapists, because waitlists are getting longer. Suicide is the second cause of death among teenagers and young adults. 60% of college students have mental health challenges. 60% of LGBTQ+ youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis, especially among young people.
I was then going to talk about how we need new solutions, like digital therapeutics and new drugs. That we need to train more people in mental health care, not just experts with Master and PhD degrees. That peer support – people with lived experience of mental health challenges supporting others in their community – is an overlooked solution to the mental health crisis. All of this is true, but it felt like yet another article about mental health, indistinguishable from all the others I’ve been reading.
As I was sitting on the sofa chewing my pencil, my husband looked at me and said, “You’re overthinking this. You need to write it from the heart. What do you want to say?”
What I really want to say is this: You are not alone
Behind all those statistics are real people, like my husband who has been living with bipolar since we first met at university. People who can’t see a way out of their suffering, who blame themselves, who worry their loved ones, who are feeling alone in their pain. Our families and friends, mine and yours.
If you are suffering, I want you to know: You are not alone. Your pain is real, and there are others who have been in that dark cave and have found their way out of it and sometimes, back into it again. People who’ve learned what it takes to pull themselves out of that cave and ask for help.
We want to make it easier for you to share your pain and your story with others who’ve been there. To let them help carry your load because it’s too much for you to carry right now. You deserve this help.
Our peer supporters will support you, one human being to another. They are uniquely qualified to do this because they’ve dealt with mental health challenges themselves, and are in recovery. Our peer supporters bring a variety of life experiences, from struggling with depression or body image to identifying as pansexual or Latinx. They will share their stories of growth and resilience. They won’t judge you and they’re not trying to change you, because they know that you are complete just as you are. Rather, they’re here to listen and to guide you through things that you may not feel equipped to deal with on your own. They will help you find strengths that you didn’t know you have.
Our website and our service certainly aren’t perfect; they’re what tech people call a ‘beta product’. We embrace the imperfections, because we know they will get better as we get feedback from our first users. We’ve built them with care: Our telehealth platform is HIPAA compliant and secure. Our peer supporters are trained to a state certification level. Our head of peer support, Ally, met with every single supporter last week to see if they’re ready, and to provide them the support they may need.
If you would like to talk to a caring human being about something that’s going on in your life, we have wonderful peer supporters on our peers.net platform who are eager to be there for you. Not only have they gone through training and earned their certification, but they’ve also chosen to show up every day and be vulnerable to help you.
When we asked them why they wanted to become peer supporters, here is what they said:
“I want to be the person I needed when I was younger.”
“If it weren’t for the few people who were able to meet me where I was at mentally in my early twenties, I likely never would have healed. I can only hope to give that back to somebody who needs it in the same way.”
“I’m here because you matter. I know what it’s like to feel as if you’re drowning in your suffering and struggles with no room to breathe. I believe in you and your ability to heal and grow and love. You don’t have to do it alone.”
Some are just as nervous as you are right now. One said in our group chat, “I’m worried that nobody is going to book a session with me”. The others rallied around, reassuring her and making her feel heard – giving each other peer support!
So what are you waiting for?
We hope you’ll join us in this journey. peers.net is now available for 18-30 year olds. Give peers.net a try and see how it feels to talk to someone who gets you.
It might not look like much now, but it’s the beginning of a revolution.
Why we’re launching our peer support training and network
At Flourish Labs, we’re on a mission to bring accessible, affordable mental health support to everyone who needs it by empowering people to support each other. We’re in the midst of a student mental health crisis. Over 40% of college students have mental health challenges, according to the Healthy Minds Study. College counseling centers are struggling to keep up with demand.
We believe that peer support is an effective, yet under-utilized solution to this crisis. Peer supporters use their own lived experience of mental health challenges to help others. Studies have shown that peer support not only benefits the student being supported, but also helps the supporter maintain good mental health. In other words, it’s mutual. A recent survey found that 20% of students already have experienced peer support, and another 50% want to try it. On many campuses, students are self-organizing to provide informal peer support to each other, with little or no training.
Unfortunately, as with other mental health professions, there aren’t enough trained and qualified peer supporters to meet the need. Mental Health America estimates that only about 24,000 people work as Certified Peer Support Specialists in the US today.
Our ambition is to grow this workforce by training students in peer support skills, such as active listening, building rapport, strengths, self-care, coping strategies and safety. We’ll then offer students a part-time job as Certified Peer Supporters in our peer support network launching later this fall. Students who want support will be able to find Certified Peer Supporters who match their needs, and book support sessions via our digital platform.
We’re not alone
This effort will take a village, not just a technology startup such as Flourish Labs, so we’re partnering with nonprofits and colleges to bring the peer supporter training and job opportunity to students. We’re working closely with two leading nonprofits in the youth peer space. Youth Era, a peer-led organization based in Oregon who have deep experience in training youth peer supporters, is our training partner. We’ve been designing our program with Active Minds, the largest nationwide network of student mental health volunteers with chapters on over 600 college campuses.
We’re also working with student groups, career centers, psychology departments and innovation groups at Northeastern University, University of St Thomas Houston, Western Governors University, Arizona State University and University of Oregon to bring this opportunity to their community. (Read this blogpost on why WGU chose to partner with us.) We’re always looking for more college partners, especially community colleges and others with diverse student populations. So if you are interested in offering peer supporter training, paid work experience and meaningful part-time jobs to your students, please get in touch.
Sign up for ‘Peer Support 101’ training, starting August 29th
Our ‘Peer Support 101’ training is a 20-hour live, virtual course designed and delivered in partnership with Youth Era. It is based on Youth Era’s proven Uplift program, and adapted for college students.
Register by August 25th to join the training starting August 29th, or get priority access for future courses if you can’t make this one.
We are offering 150 scholarships so students can participate in the training free of charge (worth $475 each). If you complete the course and pass the assessment at the end, you will receive a digital certificate that you can display on your LinkedIn or Handshake profile – and a $75 gift voucher!
As with all our projects, we’re designing our training with students, for students. This first cohort will be a beta test and we’ll evolve it over time.
We hope to see you at our first training!
Image: Nathan Blanken and fellow University of Maryland students at Active Minds event in October 2021. Photo by Kevin Carney
Posted on 16 June 2022, updated 7 April 2023 by Anastasia Zorlas, Product & UX Research Intern
My personal journey with mental health started in my senior year of high school. When I first experienced my mental wellness declining, I became very isolated from my support system – to the point where I kept all of my emotions inside and made sure that everyone I cared about stayed out. At the time, I was scared to bring up how poor my mental state was because I didn’t want anyone to worry about me. When I started college, I was lucky to meet people who understood what I was going through and helped me to find the right support.
Now I’m a fourth-year entrepreneurship and computer science student at Northeastern University. In January I moved to San Francisco for a semester to learn more about startups. I met Obi Felten, who had left Google X to start her company Flourish Labs, focusing on the student mental health crisis. I was drawn to Obi’s vision of ‘flourishing minds for all’ and her willingness to ask for help from students and people with lived experience of mental health challenges to ensure that the products Flourish Labs makes are what we need and want. I joined her as an intern, excited about the opportunity to make change for students who are struggling with their mental health and might not be as lucky as I’ve been in finding support.
Over the past few months, we have been working with groups of students from Northeastern University and our partner Active Minds to evolve the myala app. myala started out last September as a self-tracking app, helping you understand the ups and downs of your mind. It also offered quick access to crisis counsellors from Crisis Text Line.
But sometimes you’re not in crisis, you just want someone to talk to. I know from personal experience how hard it can be to reach out to a friend or family member for help when I’m feeling low. Who do I contact? What do I say to them?
In one of our design workshops with Northeastern students in the Bay Area, we discussed how difficult it can be to reach out for help exactly when you need it most.
We brainstormed ways to break down this barrier, and got inspired by the bat-signal beckoning Batman for help!
What if you could summon help from your friends with the tap of a button?
Today we’re launching the myala signal, which makes it easier to reach out and get support from your friends when you need it. Here is how it works:
In the support section of the myala app, you can invite your friends or family to be part of your support team. After they accept, they appear in your support team list. You can add or remove supporters at any time.
You can customize the text message that myala sends out to your friends when you ask for support.
When you want support, all you need to do is tap the myala signal button in the app. myala sends a text message to each person on your support team with your message, asking them to get in touch with you.
The myala signal is not intended to replace crisis support. If you’re in a crisis and want an immediate response, please contact 988.
How we designed the myala signal with students, for students
In my internship, I learnt a lot about the process from idea to product feature launching in the app. Here is how we did it:
1. In our design workshop, we brainstormed how a bat-signal might manifest in the håp app.
2. We created a storyboard of the user experience.
3. We drew flow diagrams and a paper prototype with screen wireframes made of giant Post-It notes.
4. After the workshop, I worked with Nathan to transfer our paper designs into flows and wireframes in Figma, our user interface design tool. We discussed the flows and wireframes with our designer and our engineering team, and made some adjustments.
4. Our designer Charles turned our wireframes into screen designs for our engineering team to implement.
5. After our engineers built the feature, we tested an internal build with a small group of testers to make sure it worked properly.
myala is now freely available to all students
myala was launched last September in a closed beta test with a few hundred trusted testers, mostly Active Minds members and Northeastern students. We are hugely grateful to our testers who gave us plenty of feedback on how to improve and evolve the app.
Starting today, we are making the myala app freely available to any student over the age of 16 studying in the US. You just need an email address ending in .edu to sign into the app. As a myala user, you can invite friends and family to use myala with your personal referral link, even if they are not a student. Go to settings/refer a friend to share the app.
myala is still very much a work in progress. We welcome your feedback as we continue to design with students, for students. You can give feedback at any time by tapping the feedback button in the top right corner of the app, it looks like a speech bubble.
If you want to get more actively involved, we’ll be running more focus groups, online surveys and design workshops in the summer and fall. I’m staying on at Flourish Labs to do a coop placement for the rest of the year working on user experience research and product development, so look out for an invite from me to participate!
Coming soon: Peer supporter training in partnership with Youth Era
Starting this summer, Flourish Labs is partnering with Youth Era to offer peer support training for students. Youth Era is a nonprofit based in Eugene, Oregon who have been empowering teenagers and young adults with peer support for over a decade. Flourish Labs will be offering students the opportunity to work as a peer supporter during their studies after they successfully complete the training. We’re excited to bring peer support to more college students across the US.
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