BY MARK CREEKMORE
More peers than ever are being used in health and mental health services. Mental health peers are people who have experienced mental health conditions and want to use their experience to help others. Peers are used most to help with complex, chronic conditions, like serious mental illness, substance use disorders, diabetes, traumatic brain injuries, and heart conditions, to name a few. Peers can help others navigate confusing health systems, obtain services, adhere to treatment, develop recovery plans, build living skills and identify community resources.
NAMI uses peer education and support groups and people share experiences over several sessions. Peer groups build trust, combat social isolation (“I am not alone”) and encourage engagement. This is a wonderful experience for people who have felt stigmatized, disrespected and isolated, often after years of misdiagnosis and ineffective treatment. Peer education and support works well for people in a mental health court or jail and for people from underserved communities.
So often professional treatment is focused on transactions expressed in “if … then” statements: “If you tell me about your problems, I will help find solutions.” There are ways for professionals to encourage a discovery process, like motivational interviewing. But professional transactions are limited by time, funding and work processes.
Peer services focus on relationships based on the shared experience of “knowing what it’s like.” Peer services also focus on trust, rapport, credibility and role modeling. They promote a sense of belonging and worthiness and are more reciprocal, flexible and empowering. Peer services address more than the symptoms of mental health conditions. They also address the some of the social determinants of health that research has shown can limit the effectiveness of professional treatments.
Forty years of research about peer services have found that professional and peer services are especially powerful when they complement each other. Peer services help make professional service transactions more effective.
NAMI is essentially a peer organization that provides education, support and advocacy through groups of people who have lived experience. NAMI’s peer leaders come from people who have experienced our education or support program and demonstrated program leadership. Leaders also make a commitment to be faithful to the program model. NAMI National programs are developed by experienced professionals using the best available scientific and clinical information and teaching models. All NAMI programs have been offered for many years in communities across the country.
This year NAMI Washtenaw will expand our peer programs into traditionally underserved communities. We will reach out to new communities and recruit new peers who can navigate and advocate for new services for their peers. We will be collaborating with six service sectors that provide professional mental health services: health, mental health, education, criminal justice, faith and housing organizations.