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People experiencing mental health crises often feel more comfortable receiving support from others with a common lived experience. Yet such commonality can be hard to find in the traditional care model. Peer support can supplement or fill the gap for individuals whose mental health needs are not fully met within the traditional system.

Peer support takes many shapes, but it typically falls into one of two models; it can be provided by a peer support specialist employed within a health system or insurance company who has been trained in best practices to support others in need, or it can be more informal group peer support provided outside a clinical setting. In all cases, peer specialists draw on personal experience to validate and help their peers discover what they need to be well. Sometimes a single trained peer specialist supports one or more group members; other times, multiple group members may be trained to help each other—either one-on-one or through a larger group.

Lived Experience Enhances Peer Support

Peer support models can also provide an appealing alternative for people who don’t feel comfortable accessing more formal mental health services, explains Valeria Chambers, EdM, CAS, CPS, a senior community researcher in the Health Equity Research Lab at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA).

Chambers was one of the first people in Massachusetts to be certified as a peer specialist two decades ago. She founded Black Voices: Pathways4Recovery in 2005 in response to the needs she saw within her own community. Today, she continues to lead this grassroots peer support group, which operates independently from any specific health organization. This effort, which has engaged more than 100 participants over the years, serves as a safety net for Black residents in the greater Boston area who feel their needs have not been met by the existing medical system.

Black Voices members meet weekly and talk about an array of situations and stresses. But what really bonds them together is their shared understanding of what it’s like being Black and living with a mental health concern. “People want to be able to talk to others without having to explain what it’s like racially and culturally being Black in America with mental health concerns, trauma, or addictions,” Chambers said. This same type of model can also fill similar needs for other groups and communities.

Measuring the Success of Black Voices

While it’s hard to quantitatively measure the broader impact of Black Voices, research being led by Caryn R.R. Rodgers, PhD, a practicing psychologist and associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in collaboration with CHA and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is beginning to paint a clear picture of the benefits—and the potential that this model holds for other groups.

“A major theme that is emerging is around the value of Black-centeredness and how much that is something that people are deprived of in their day-to-day spaces—including healthcare spaces,” explained Ana Progovac, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and senior scientist in CHA’s Health Equity Research Lab. She points out that programs like Black Voices can help participants connect to people who understand their frustrations and stresses and provide a safe space to address mental health challenges.

Exploring Peer Support for Clinicians

Another innovative peer support model exists at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). But the focus of the BWH effort is on medical professionals who are dealing with job-related stress, such as burnout or an unexpected clinical outcome. Health professionals can receive help from their colleagues who have been trained as peer supporters.

Many clinicians find that being able to access support within their own department from a colleague they trust helps them feel less isolated during a difficult time, according to Morana Lasic, MD, medical director of the hospital’s Peer Support Program. She said that approximately 20 to 30 clinicians receive support through the program each month. Lasic explained that the strength of BWH’s peer support model is that it’s wedded in the professional language and culture of the people it serves. It also provides an opportunity for clinicians to connect on a more personal level.

“Peer support is really about creating a culture where we all care for one another,” stressed Pamela Galowitz, manager of the Office of Mediation, Coaching, Ombuds and Support Services (OMCOSS) at BWH.

In both the BWH and Black Voices peer support groups, participants are supported by others who share their experiences, so they don’t have to explain the context around what they are going through.

Bringing Peer Support Programs into the Mainstream

BWH’s clinician Peer Support Program and the Black Voices group both exist outside the formal framework of the broader health system.

The authors of a recent literature review in JMIR Mental Health suggest that when more peer support efforts are integrated into the structure of the medical system, they are likely to extend mental healthcare in meaningful ways. They stress that this vision ultimately requires a collaborative effort from a variety of stakeholders—both in the healthcare system and in the community—in order to be truly successful.

By normalizing peer support on a wider level and making it more readily accessible for a variety of healthcare consumers and healthcare professionals with a range of needs, everyone can benefit.

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