“Simply put, peer support occurs when people in a particular circumstance reach out to help others in the same or a very similar circumstance. It is the act of a person or persons reaching out to others to help them deal with life challenges.”
N.A.P.S. Founder, Steve Harrington
While the history of peer support work may be inspiring, the present is empowering. Across the US and abroad, peer support has become a sustainable method for recovery. Studies show that participants in peer support programs are more active in their communities and have better health outcomes than those that relied solely on clinical help.
Many peer support organizations and programs come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. Some programs operate within a larger organization, as one facet of their mental health care and recovery plan. Other programs are dedicated to the development of the Peer Supporter role, building out requirements and limitations. There are some organizations that focus largely on awareness, some that serve as transitional housing, some that reduce stigma through information, and some (like us!) that provide certification and training courses to Peer Supporters.
The present of peer support is vast, and the potential is limitless – peer support programs have so far been used valuably in police departments, physician’s associations, substance use prevention organizations, prisons, and even in schools. The role of the Peer Supporter has grown immeasurably in recent years. There are many associations connecting peers all across the country and internationally.
Alternative Crisis Management
Peer support can serve as an alternative healthcare option to EMS and other emergency services that might lead to hospitalization for those experiencing a mental health crisis. An ER visit is costly, and can sometimes be re-traumatizing for those already in crisis. Interactions with law enforcement can exacerbate crisis symptoms and anxiety, as many law enforcement agencies do not specialize in addressing mental and behavioral health crises and lack the necessary training to support individuals experiencing a crisis. Nearly 10% of all police interactions are related to mental and behavioral health – however, officers are often asked to address situations that they are not qualified to address. This is where peer support comes in.
The “living room” model of crisis intervention (also called Crisis Stabilization Centers) offers a community-based alternative to law enforcement interactions and the emergency room. Often in the ER, people in crisis experience long wait-times, lack of respect, miscommunication with doctors, and little to no follow-up upon release. A Crisis Stabilization Center instead establishes a safe, comfortable place staffed by Peer Specialists and on-call psychiatrists to ensure that a person experiencing a crisis can stabilize quickly. These Peer Specialists are trained in crisis management, in how to come from a trauma-informed place during sessions, how to build an empathetic relationship with those that have lived experience, and they know how to link their peers to long-term resources.
These facilities are sometimes called “peer respites,” a name which emphasizes the importance of rest and safety. Many of the US’s peer respites offer beds and overnight stays to support those experiencing displacement and homelessness. According to a 2016 survey, there are over 22 peer-staffed respites and centers in 11 states in the US that are fully operational. None have opened so far in Colorado, but we are hopeful that with the establishment of a new Behavioral Health Administration, peer respites and crisis stabilization centers could become the norm in the next decade.
A Growing Workforce
Not only does peer support work provide resources for those who need them, it also provides a career path for those with lived experience – often, finding work in the wake of recovery can be difficult. The role of the Peer Support Professional allows people to use their stories and lived experiences to guide others through recovery. This creates opportunities where there used to be none: now, assisting others and building healthy, recovery-oriented relationships with peers has become a life and career path for many. Where mental health professions used to be restricted to clinicians, there are now job opportunities for people who want to use their experiences to inform health care.
As the workforce for Peer Support Professionals and Specialists grows, the legislative landscape regarding mental and behavioral health care transforms: now more than ever, there are peers advocating in front of legislators for a more robust and widely accessible mental health system. As the Colorado legislature deliberates on how to spend new funding from the government, community organizations like ours have rallied to bring peers and their stories to committee meetings and legislative hearings. We have even launched an Advocacy 101 training with Mental Health Colorado to help our communities tell their stories comfortably and effectively before legislative committees and boards. Advocacy has long been a part of the peer movement, and this year community-based organizations are demanding change from the state in the wake of multiple investigations that have revealed insufficient mental and behavioral healthcare from regional care centers.
Your Recovery, Your Way
Every person is different, which means every person’s recovery can and should look different. When paired with clinical methods of recovery, peer support offers a unique opportunity to craft your own path to recovery based on what is most important to you. The peer support model relies on the relationship between peers: mutuality, respect, and honesty are pillars of the peer-to-peer relationship.
You decide how much peer support you want, and when you need it. There is no power differential between you and your Peer Support Professional or Specialist – they are a person living and thriving with behavioral health conditions, and they will never tell you that you have to do something one way or another. Their job is to model recovery, however that may look.
With help from your Peer Support Professional, you can design your own way forward. Peer support originated in the community, and community remains an integral part of the process. Participants in peer programs can connect to a community of peers that understand them and their lived experience; finding a group of people that will validate you and your experiences creates healing for both the community and the individual.
A Peer-Led Future
The possibilities are endless: peer support groups allow individuals to become a community, to share and be heard by people that understand them. The skills gained in peer support programs translate across professions – peer support groups focus on everything from workplace anxiety, burnout, and trauma to substance-use and mental health conditions. The power of peer support can alleviate stress, loneliness, and displacement in communities. Some studies suggest that having accessible peer support programming lowers rates of poverty and violence in communities as well as supporting long-term growth for individuals.
Whether you are experiencing displacement, the effects of trauma, are recently un-incarcerated, or are living with a substance use or mental health condition, there are peer support organizations dedicated to providing respectful, long-term help. With the power of peer support, the healthcare system has an opportunity to invest in communities, and allow communities to invest in themselves.
Organizations that are Doing Peer Work:
“Hearts Reign is a peer-led Latino community organization that works to promote and strengthen the values of self-help, mutual support, and recovery activities in the Eagle River Valley. | Hearts Reign es una organización de la comunidad latina dirigida por pares que trabaja para promover y fortalecer los valores de auto ayuda, apoyo mutuo, y actividades de recuperación en Eagle River Valley.”
“Founded in 1975, Women for Sobriety (WFS) is the first peer-support program tailored specifically for women overcoming substance use disorders (SUDs). The WFS New Life Program is inclusive of all women, regardless of financial resources, race, religion, abilities, and backgrounds. With both in-person and online meetings, the New Life Program provides supportive, empowering, secular, and life-affirming principles that address the unique needs and challenges of women in recovery.”
“Building Promise USA (BPUSA) is a peer-led, peer-run and peer-driven non-profit organization whose mission is to dismantle the cycle of incarceration, unemployment and homelessness among people with justice involvement and behavioral health challenges by providing transitional and support programs and services to them, their families and their communities.”
“The Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network is a Georgia Corporation founded in 1991 by consumers of state services for mental health, developmental disabilities, and addictive diseases. The mission of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network is to promote recovery through advocacy, education, employment, empowerment, peer support, and self-help, and to unite as one voice to support the priorities set each year at the annual statewide peer conference.”
“NEC staff and consultants bring unique experience in organizing and developing consumer-run organizations, and helping individuals and groups develop the knowledge and ability to transform the mental health service system toward a more recovery-oriented and consumer-and family-driven approach. Each has experience running organizations, nurturing the process of recovery in individuals and groups, and strong skills as educators. This team is available to individuals, organizations, service systems, and family members looking for a speaker or for technical assistance, training, and consultation.”
“Home to the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community. The Wildflower Alliance is a grassroots Peer Support, Advocacy, and Training organization with a focus on harm reduction and human rights. The Wildflower Alliance supports healing and empowerment for our broader communities and people who have been impacted by psychiatric diagnosis, trauma, extreme states, homelessness, problems with substances and other life-interrupting challenges. Essential to our work is recognizing and undoing systemic injustices such as racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, transmisogyny, and psychiatric oppression.”
“Wisconsin Milkweed Alliance, Incorporated (WIMA) was formed in 2018 in response to an opportunity to operate a peer run respite in Western Wisconsin. The values of WIMA’s predecessor, Milkweed Connections, LLC, guided the development of a non-profit “sibling” organization. WIMA is a peer run organization. This means that all people involved in the organization, including the Board of Directors, Management, Employees, and Volunteers, identify as someone who has experienced challenges related to trauma, substance use, or other difficult life circumstances, and is committed to providing support services from a peer perspective.”
“MHA-NE, Mental Health Association of Nebraska, was incorporated in 2001. We are a completely peer operated, participant driven organization that provides a variety of different programs available to individuals with mental health and/or substance use and addiction issues. MHA-NE is currently the only nonprofit peer run organization in Nebraska and offers alternative options for those experiences mental health and/or substance use and addiction issues as well as crisis prevention.”
“Life Connections Peer Recovery Services is a non-for-profit organization that supports individuals who are experiencing Mental Health and Substance addiction issues and who want to work on their recovery goals and situations before getting into a crisis situation. We will serve all individuals whether or not they can pay and accept tax deductible donations. We will do this by applying for state and federal grants by receiving support from local hospitals and other nonprofit agencies. Life Connections Peer Recovery Services formed from a sole propriety unto a nonprofit early 2016 as a Peer Run Organization and has made a big impact in the Eastern MHDS* Region that covers Scott, Clinton, Jackson, Cedar and Muscatine counties.”
“Friendly Harbor is the go-to place in Southern Colorado for mental wellness support and recovery. Friendly Harbor has been improving the lives of adults in recovery from mental health and substance use disorders since 1995. We are a peer-run organization that connects adults with mental health and substance use issues with the information, emotional support, and referrals they need to live full, satisfying lives. We provide a central location to gather and exchange winning strategies on the many paths to recovery.”