History of the Peer Movement

Research suggests that peer support originated in 18th century France, but did not receive widespread attention until the 19th and 20th centuries, when many survivors of the psychiatric system wrote pamphlets, established advocacy groups, and tried to bring their stories and experiences to the public. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights movement, that these stories managed to break through to the public opinion, and survivors of the psychiatric system began to find each other. We use the term “peer” to describe those that utilize behavioral health services - they can also be referred to as “consumers.” 

The peer movement foregrounds the lived experience of peers: it allows those that inhabit the behavioral healthcare system to self-direct their services, self-determine what care they need, and self-advocate for comprehensive, whole-person care.

Since the late 1970s, peer and family organizations have increased their influence over behavioral health services. Through strong, dedicated advocacy, they have gained a voice in legislation and policy at both national and state levels in order to shape the behavioral healthcare system into one that is more representative of their needs. Though divergent in their histories and philosophies, peer organizations and family organizations have developed some important, overlapping goals.

These include


Overcoming stigma 

Preventing discrimination

Promoting support groups and self-directed care

Advocating for recovery-oriented treatment options

While we recognize the value and importance of all advocacy and service organizations devoted to representing the peer voice, there is something very distinct about an organization that is actually led by those peers. Throughout the county, peer-operated organizations help unite the voices of their members to create more powerful and effective advocacy.

Throughout its history, Colorado has been missing this voice. As a result, Coloradans experience challenges in accessibility to quality integrated care, availability of peer-led services, and opportunities for self-sufficiency and living free from stigma. Colorado Mental Wellness Network is one of the only 100% peer-led and operated organizations in Colorado that pushes to resolve these challenges and advocates for the rights of our peers. 

If you would like to learn more about the history of the peer movement, the leaders and trailblazers that made our work possible, and the potential for peers in healthcare, check out our blog post, “The Early Peer Support Movement.”

Our Organizational History

In 2002, CMWN, then known as the Wellness Education Coalition and Advocacy Network (or WE CAN!), was established by joining two existing grassroots consumer groups. These groups, the Consumer Centered Services of Colorado (CCSC) and Colorado Leadership Academy (CLA), both provided peer training and advocacy throughout the state. Their union into WE CAN! operated as a program under a larger mental health advocacy organization, then called Mental Health America of Colorado. 

Over the next 8 years, CMWN grew its staff from one person to two full-time, one part-time, and multiple interns and volunteers. We expanded our services to include Peer Support Professional training and Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP®) workshops. Equally importantly, we nurtured community partnerships, became members of numerous stakeholder councils and committees, and created extensive ties to our local community.

In late 2010, the Network’s statewide advisory board and staff decided to move forward with incorporation and independence. The impetus for this transition came from the community: we learned that what Colorado really needed was a peer-run organization dedicated to those with lived experience. Throughout 2011, we worked to develop a board of directors and establish bylaws and articles of incorporation. Finally, in November 2011, we filed our articles with the Secretary of State and became an independent organization.

The peer movement foregrounds the lived experience of peers: it allows those that inhabit the behavioral healthcare system to self-direct their services, self-determine what care they need, and self-advocate for comprehensive, whole-person care.

Where We Are Today

Our passion is supporting those with lived experience of behavioral health conditions who are seeking recovery, wellness, meaning, and balance in their lives. We support these individuals by providing evidence-based skill-building workshops and Peer Support Professional training. We believe that recovery is possible for every person that wants it; our programs help our community get there. 

In March of 2019, we launched our trailblazing Peer Pathways to Wellness program, designed to bring our community a range of services and support. We serve those in our communities with lived experience of substance use, trauma, mental health, and co-occurring conditions. Many of our peer support participants are unhoused, and many of them belong to intersecting identities and communities, such as BIPOC and LGBTQIA+. Since the launch of Peer Pathways to Wellness, we have supported over 11,000 people with evidence and strengths-based programming. We are proud to be one of the only peer-run, nonclinical peer support programs in the state. 

Since 2012, we have graduated over 421 Peer Support Professionals (PSPs) from our training! In Colorado, we are leading the charge and setting the standard for high-quality peer support training - we believe there is no better way to learn peer support than from real peers who live what they teach. 

We bring awareness to the real issues impacting people with behavioral health conditions - we reach thousands of Coloradans through our advocacy tools. Together, with our supporters and partners, we are making a difference!