Excerpt from SAMHSA “Value of Peers”: 

“Peer support encompasses a range of activities and interactions between people who share similar experiences of being diagnosed with mental health conditions, substance use disorders, or both. This mutuality—often called “peerness”—between a peer support worker and person in or seeking recovery promotes connection and inspires hope. Peer support offers a level of acceptance, understanding, and validation not found in many other professional relationships (Mead & McNeil, 2006). By sharing their own lived experience and practical guidance, peer support workers help people to develop their own goals, create strategies for self-empowerment, and take concrete steps towards building fulfilling, self-determined lives for themselves.”

Last year, we took a deep dive into the National Association of Peer Supporters’ ethical guidelines for peer support – this year, we want to take a closer look at the history of the peer support movement, including the peers that led the movement to where it is today.

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 psychiatric abuse began to find each other.

The Beginning of the Peer Movement:

In the 1970s, patients were released from state institutions that were closing due to lack of funding without any community support. Many of their communities didn’t want them living in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities – there was so much stigma surrounding mental and behavioral health conditions that ex-patients were considered dangerous, unstable members of society. This is where the peer movement began. These ex-patients began to find each other, creating lasting relationships and supporting each other through the sharing of lived experience.

The mental health consumer movement revolved around the necessity to reform mental health services – patients were ignored, restrained, and forced to receive treatment without informed consent. This movement closely mirrored and interacted with the peer support movement, which offered an alternative to traditional mental healthcare by way of peer support, a process that includes empathetic sharing, linking to resources, and nonjudgmental dialogue with peers.

Though the professional mental health world was slow to adopt the idea of peer support, the community of ex-patients and those with lived experience quickly adjusted to the philosophy of peers supporting peers, both in the community and in professional mental healthcare settings. Once they found each other, ex-patients began to speak out: they identified the awful mistreatment of patients in state institutions, the denial of human rights that went on inside the walls of state-sanctioned mental health facilities, and advocated for systems-wide change for those living with mental health conditions.

The Leaders of the Movement:

The leaders of the early peer support movement found relief in the support offered by their peers – more relief than they had found in state-funded treatment. The momentum of the civil rights movement inspired these ex-patients to launch their own movements – the mental health consumer movement, the peer support movement, and the psychiatric survivors’ movement are all similar, connected moments of advocacy that led to legislative reforms that focused on establishing the rights of mental health patients. 


Judi Chamberlin

Judi Chamberlin was a founder and leader of the early peer support and psychiatric survivors’ movement. Following a miscarriage in 1966, Judi Chamberlin voluntarily checked into a psychiatric care facility. However, after several voluntary holds in psychiatric centers, a psychiatrist diagnosed her with schizophrenia and placed her under an involuntary hold at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York for a period of five months. During this time, Judi Chamberlin witnessed a wide range of psychiatric abuses, including involuntary restriction, over-medication, and regular seclusion of resistive patients, even when those patients’ forms of resistance were nonviolent.

After her release, Judi Chamberlin traveled to Boston, where she joined the Mental Patients Liberation Front (MPLF), an organization that advocated for legislative reform for those living with mental health conditions. Judi Chamberlin and MPLF were at the forefront of the psychiatric survivor’s movement.

Judi Chambelin co-founded some of the first drop-in centers in the country, all of which were staffed fully by peers and other ex-patients; in other words, people with lived experience. Her early drop-in centers focused heavily on advocacy, as many still do today. Her book, On My Own, became a beloved classic for survivors of the psychiatric system, and was a founding text for the survivors’ movement.


Sally Zinman

Sally Zinman survived horrible psychiatric abuse at the hands of her care providers, and her experiences launched a life-long career of advocacy and activism. She attributes her recovery to returning to the earth through gardening and reading, throwing herself into advocacy, and committing herself to changing the mental health systems that failed her. She has been a powerful voice for mental health patients’ rights throughout her career.

Sally Zinman helped launch the US’s very first state-wide peer-run organization, and to this day remains a strong voice for eliminating stigma. Her career has spanned many organizations and many years of consumer activism. She believes in a community-based, whole-person approach to recovery and wellness, and continues to uphold the importance of advocating for mental health rights.


Howie the Harp

Howie the Harp was a self-identified peer and legendary leader of the peer movement. He helped to launch another one of the US’s very first consumer-run, peer-led organizations. In New York and California, Howie founded early drop-in centers, staffed by peer supporters. His life and career were dedicated to establishing advocacy groups designed to protect those experiencing homelessness and poverty.

Without the efforts of early peer supporters like Judi Chamberlin, Sally Zinman, and Howie the Harp, peer support would not exist –  these leaders laid the foundation for modern mental health service reform, and created the country’s very first peer-run organizations. Colorado Mental Wellness Network, a state-wide, peer-run organization, recognizes the accomplishments of the early peer support movement. We would not be able to do the amazing work that we do without the efforts of this movement.


Steve Harrington

Steve Harrington was a founding member of the National Association of Peer Specialists. He helped develop the National Practice Guidelines for Peer Supporters with his friend and colleague Rita Conrise, a set of guidelines and best practices that has guided the peer support community and workforce for years. Steve’s work with NAPS laid the foundation for community-based, peer-run organizations like Colorado Mental Wellness Network.

He has personally supported CMWN by graciously providing us with his Peer Support Training manual when we were creating our own path forward for Peer Support Professionals. His support and work made our organization possible. Steve was also a keynote speaker at a conference organized by CMWN in 2010.

On November 29th, 2021, the peer support community lost a dear friend and founder in Steve Harrington. His kindness and generosity to us and our team will not be forgotten — we will always remember Steve for his passionate dedication to the peer support and recovery community.

Please join us in remembering our friend Steve for his incredible life. His friend, Rita Conrise, describes his wonderful life and work in this blog post. If you have a story about Steve or knew him personally, please include it in the comments.

So what is Peer Support? 

Colorado Mental Wellness Network is in the business of building and maintaining relationships – that is what peer support is all about. Lived experience connects all survivors of mental and behavioral health conditions, and peer support is about creating a relationship between two people with lived experience.

In modern mental and behavioral healthcare, the role of a Peer Support Professional or Peer Specialist is not always well-defined. There is a distinct lack of professional support for this workforce, something that Colorado Mental Wellness Network is working hard to address. We define peer support as an evidence-based practice that connects people with lived experience of mental health, substance use and trauma conditions with Peer Support Professionals who have been trained in ethics, trauma-informed communication skills, resource linking and more. Peer support is the practice of connecting people with their peers, others who understand their experiences and who can advocate for recovery. A Peer Support Professional is someone with lived experience who is thriving in recovery. They provide support to others experiencing similar challenges using non-clinical, strengths-based support and are “experientially credentialed” by their own recovery journey.

Peer support did not originate from the medical model – rather, our movement started a long time ago and stemmed from the evidence-based fact that people with lived experience are best at supporting others with lived experience. In other words, peers know how to best support other peers, and we believe that the evidence speaks for itself.

The Early Peer Support Movement

Wilder Hickney

Wilder C. Hickney has been consulting with Colorado Mental Wellness Network as a Communications Specialist since November 2021. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and Communication Studies and has previously worked as a rhetorical researcher and intern with the University of Denver. Wilder continues to offer services related to developing long-term rhetorical communication strategies to clients. With CMWN, she combines her love of language and her lived experience to create promotional content through various communication channels. In her free time, Wilder is a dedicated poet and dog lover.

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