Mental health

The Role of Peer Support in Mental Health

Mental illness peer support: two pugs sitting side by side on a bench

As members of the blogging community, we’re already experiencing a form of peer support and seeing the benefits of it.  It also exists in a more formal sense, with trained peer support workers (PSWs) forming part of health care teams.  I wanted to explore that a little bit here.

What peer support is

The Mental Health Commission of Canada has this to say:

“Peer support programs work by offering people support, encouragement, and hope that recovery is possible. Peer support considers the wellness of the whole person and focuses on health and recovery rather than illness and disability, in order to assist people in finding their own path to recovery.”

The relationship to the medical model can vary widely. The psychiatric survivor movement was more anti-medical model, while in other cases, PSWs work in partnership alongside care based on the medical model. Regardless, the goal is not illness treatment; instead, the relationship is the basis for promoting personal recovery. While medical services aren’t always voluntary, peer-based approaches are based on freedom of choice.

What it might look like in practice

One possible format is self-help groups; Alcoholics Anonymous is a well-known example. Another is peer-run service organizations. Some mental health care providers hire PSWs to function as part of an interdisciplinary team.

Mental Health America calls for peer support to be an integral part of mental health and substance abuse programs. They’ve also developed a National Certified Peer Specialist certification program. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has developed guidelines for the training and practice of PSWs. The delivery of training for PSWs is delivered through a patchwork of local training.

Benefits

Peer support can promote empowerment, independence, self-expression, and inclusion in terms of fostering community and breaking down hierarchies. It’s focused on psycho-social-spiritual recovery, but research has shown that it can decrease symptom distress and number of hospitalizations, while improving quality of life.

Peer support isn’t a substitute for mental illness treatment, nor is it intended to be. While I’m very much in support of the concept, I can’t think of a situation where it would be a kind of formal service that I would choose to seek out. Then again, there’s a variety of community organizations that serve people with mental illnesses, and those don’t interest me either, so I’m probably just a non-participator in general. Informal peer support, though, feels like a better fit for me.

The role of the blogging community

In particular, I’m a big fan of the informal support network we’ve got going on here in the blogosphere. There’s a sense of community and a lack of hierarchy. Even if other people don’t fully understand what we’re experiencing, it’s not hard to find people who just “get it” at a fundamental level. It’s a place where masks can be taken off, and confessing abnormality is actually the norm.

It’s hard to say if this form of peer support has had any tangible benefits related to my illness. During the time I’ve been blogging, I’ve had a substantial illness-related functional decline, and I’m not sure if the support I’ve asked here has impacted that at all. Still, this is where the majority of my social interaction occurs, and it’s far more accessible than trying to connect with “normal” people “in real life.”

Before I started blogging 2 1/2 years ago, I had no idea that this amazing informal support network even existed. Even just five years ago, I don’t know that I would have accessed it even if I had known. I’m just glad it was here at the right time for me.

Is peer support something that’s played a role at all in your own wellbeing?

Sources

Mental health website & app resource listings

Visit the Mental Health Websites & Apps page for listings of lots of great mental health resources.

70 thoughts on “The Role of Peer Support in Mental Health”

  1. Peer Support is what I have heard of. Not something I have had myself and neither has my mum. I think Peer Support is definitely a good thing.

  2. I can’t really explain why or how but as I searched for support groups I found the more formal kind. Where they give psycho-education. While this can seem interesting, it wasn’t for me.
    I feel better online because it’s not ‘in-your-face’, you can choose what you read and what not. You can choose when you read and when you comment …. it’s more relaxed that way.
    For me, where I am now, I can’t handle a lot of other stories (it sounds awful in my ears but it is like that), I’m still very ‘inward’ with my energy (a little egotistical maybe?)
    I think peer support is very needed and works very well, but you need to find your ‘buddy’ and that’s not always easy.

    1. I also appreciate the level of choice and flexibility online. And I don’t think an inward focus is egotistical at all; we need to do whatever is of most useful in promoting our own heaing.

  3. You are absolutely right, peer support is not a replacement for professional help. It can however, be an amazing accompaniment. It can also be a good launching pad for learning what to expect when when you begin a healing journey.

    I too, have been amazed at the safe place I have found here among others who “get it”. Even through my struggles, I cherish these connections too. 🙏🏻💜

  4. I’ve been to a conference in Ghent where peer support was promoted. My experience is that it does work for some people, but not me. I wanted to implement it but I didn’t get support, that is, I got people who wanted to engage in this work without proper training. Dangerous.

      1. That is how I ended my work in advocacy. Imagine if untrained person is dealing with someone suicidal!

  5. I go through phases of looking for new blogs to read and other phases of not reading so much and trying to be online less often. I’m not sure what drives that. Some of it is just time. There are a lot of mental health blogs out there.

    I appreciate comments on my blog. I think I have a blog that is not of so much interest to most people, so comments are precious. I admit it is good for my self-esteem when people compliment me on my blog, which is probably not something I should admit to. OTOH, if no one comments on a post, or people comment and miss the point or say that they don’t understand, that just makes me feel more of a freak.

    Also, if people (bloggers or commenters) vanish suddenly, that can be worrying. There can be hurt and taking it personally, but there can also be worry, particularly if they were going through a bad patch. So I don’t think it’s completely risk-free.

    1. I don’t think anything is completely risk-free, but I agree, there can definitely be some downsides.

      If you don’t get comments or if someone misunderstands what you’ve written, I think that realistically, the chances of that being because you are a freak are very slim. I think it’s very much par for the course for any blogger that sometimes people will misinterpret their posts.

  6. I totally agree that good peer support is online, through blogging or similar things. The concept of its being more “in person” seems… I don’t know… wrong somehow, because there’s a weird aspect to connecting that can happen online, whereas in person, I think the connections are more likely to fall flat. I’m not sure if it’s because the internet broadens the scope to people you meet to worldwide, thus seeking out people you have more in common with than the small group of people who live nearby; or if it’s the internet environment; or if it’s just pure dumb luck to ever connect with anyone. No clue. But anyway, I’m a huge believer in support!!

    1. I think in-person peer support services are more purposeful and focused on supporting mental health, whereas in the blogging world it’s more spontaneous and friendship-oriented.

  7. I absolutely love this! The benefits of peer support has been overwhelming! Even if someone doesn’t align exactly like another, we can assist each other by simply being supportive, making a comment and sharing each other’s work. Thank you for writing this. It inspires me to be more engaged in my own development and helping others by my support.

  8. I did peer support as a volunteer with women who had severe traumas. It was scary on the other side. Very little debriefing support. I had to quit. Too much second hand trauma. I loved doing it though. It felt natural to listen.

  9. The closest I ever got to peer support, is that I was asked if I wanted to be a peer support person once upon a time. I didn’t do it though. I was too symptomatic over the deal. I thought that I might, but my symptoms were just too invasive. I, too, look at the blogosphere as this informal method of support. We are people who “get it” at the most basic of levels. I never thought I’d ever say this, but I get more support from the blogosphere, through posts and casual side-bar conversations, than I ever did with my family or many close friends. It is what it is and I am grateful!

  10. Thank you for this!!
    my Dad was told by doctor people around you are going to play a big role in your treatment and recovery.
    i agree with every word here. it’s like taking a bitter pill with something that taste better.

  11. The support I receive from the blogging community isn’t specifically related to my recovery or other anxieties (in fact, there are times the relentless cheerfulness of bloggers in general is supremely irritating), but their support for my WRITING has really kept me going through some tough days. For whatever reason, I don’t receive that support in other social media or even from RL friends, some of whom are WRITERS. Weird, right? This encouragement is super helpful to me ❤️

  12. I started in the blogging community in late 2017 mainly as a way to promote my first book. While I still hype them when they come out — July 5 everyone! — I have found so much more support and a fantastic sounding boar for my ideas. I also like the fact that while I write about addiction and porn addiction mainly, if I’m having strong opinions about something else, like today’s entry on COVID in southern states, people will read what I have to say and respond. Just knowing someone is out there reading what I have to say is empowering. When I was a newspaper editor or magazine publisher, tens of thousands read my stuff. Now, it’s tens of dozens, but I’m OK with that.

      1. I find in blog land, the people who really don’t like what you have to say simply stay away. In the newspaper world, they write letters and you have to run them.

  13. I think the focus on health/wellness rather than illness in itself is a potential positive, even without the peer support, because in doing that we’re changing our focus and internalising a little locus of control (in my opinion) towards the positives and the things we can do, rather than what we can’t. In terms of peer support, I don’t know… I’d agree with you in that it’s a good complementary aspect to other forms of help (medication, therapy, etc), but I wouldn’t personally seek it out, at least not in the first instance or as the only means of help for my mental health.

    I’m also very grateful for the blogging community, which I have found, for the most part, to be incredibly warm, welcoming, understanding and non-judgemental. My anxiety hasn’t been positively affected by this, nor has my depression really, but it does do something. It firms the ground under my feet a little, makes me feel a little less isolated. I guess the benefits are more obvious when you think how it would be without it.

    Interesting post, Ashley.xx

    1. I’ve heard good things about it from some people, but for myself I find it harder to imagine what it would be like in person as opposed to online.

  14. I have a pretty good support system in real life, but I’ve also found lots of support on FB. I agree that doing it online we’re more free to be ourselves.

  15. Didn’t know about peer support. From hospital, knew about AA/NA, etc. Just never connected that’s what it was. Have some hospital friends and have a few blog friends. These are important to us. It would be weird to seek out random people to support us. We sort of did back in the day:,The sexual violence center provides 10 free appointments with a trained listener in a therapy-style setting. We were so busy surviving, we didn’t realize it was power support. Probably because our Littles think we’re little so “peers” are all old people lol. It was an important bridge to safety.

  16. I loved this piece and it truly hit home. I work as a Peer Support Specialist for a nonprofit in upstate NY called the Mental Health Empowerment Project. I never knew what peer support was before working here and never had heard of anything pertaining to mental health treatment that doesn’t include the medical model. My favorite part about my work is the fact that we offer peer’s choices, their treatment is their choice as is their reasons for not going into treatment. Thank you for sharing this piece!

  17. Peer support is relatively new in the UK and we didn’t have Peer Support Workers when I was nursing. It would definitely have been a service I’d encourage my patients to use.

    Like you Ashley, I’ve benefited a lot since starting my blog and I’m really grateful to fellow bloggers, who continue to be supportive, compassionate, extremely friendly and non-judgemental.

    I don’t tend to get out much and I don’t have a regular sleep pattern due to both my physical and mental illnesses, so being able to chat online or seek support from an individual any time of my night or day has been, at times, life-saving.

    And I confess, I also love when fellow-bloggers leave encouraging comments on my posts as they spur me on to continue writing. For too many years, after being medically retired, I felt useless and that I wasn’t contributing anything to society, I had nothing to be proud of and I believed my sons had nothing to be proud of me for.

    Now, through blogging and social media, I’m mentoring (unofficially) a couple of mental health nurse students so I’m feeling useful again. Small steps, but I’d never have got here without the blogging community. I’m not sure it’s measurable but it’s helped me immensely.

    1. I think being able to find that sense of making a useful contribution is so valuable to find when disability makes it impossible to be useful through work.

    2. That is fantastic! I love that you have a purpose to fill your soul with joy and that you are helping others. Keep it up

  18. I honestly believe I would not have succeeded in giving up alcohol without the peer support I have via my blogging community. That has developed into peer support for my depression, anxiety and other aspects of life. I feel the friendships that have been former through beginning a blog have directly contributed to my improved wellbeing and mental health. I was never interested in a more structured format such as AA, though in the past I have attended ‘diet’ groups which helped a little. This is where I’m most comfortable though.

    1. I think the unstructured format of online support makes it easier to personalize, so it’s easier to get the kind of support you want at the times that work best.

  19. I once almost became a trained peer supporter but declined the offer. In my country of Singapore, it’s been around for several years but I’ve a great deal of criticism about the piss poor quality of training, and how many who go into that lack basic non judgement and empathy skills, much less active listening skills…

    I like the informal peer support here and on Instagram. I find connection and mutual care really helpful even if my functioning objectively has never improved. I find that I’m less ashamed and less socially isolated, and I enjoy commenting and reading.

  20. I have been struggling with ocd for last 15 years, as a result to this I have lost all the connections in real life. So, I finally started to write my own blog about the things I have faced and also how I am coming out of things. And also things I love writing about. As I am relatively new on WordPress I don’t have so many connections yet. But looking forward to regain my social life with great people on WordPress.

  21. Very interesting. I believe that we need to bring more awareness to mental health, so that we don’t feel as if we are struggling alone. Often times, depression makes one feel all alone. I just started my blog as well and will be interviewing real people with real mental health struggles. I would love some input from anyone that is willing to help bring awareness to mental health. 🙂 Thank you.

  22. loved your post and thought i would like to share a prayer with you. let me know if you’re fine to watch it on youtube and i will share the link with you. you will be blessed and i believe a miracle is just waiting to happen.

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