Understanding peer support for mental health

Sometimes, it might feel like nobody ‘gets it’. But there are people who can relate, and they’re available to support you on your journey to wellness.  

What is peer support?

Let’s start by defining what “peers” are. In healthcare generally, peers are individuals who possess a nuanced understanding of illness, usually from their own experience, or from that of a caregiver. Many are specially trained to be community ambassadors, empathetic listeners, health educators, patient advocates, and/or resource specialists. The role of a peer supporter is intended to complement and extend care received by clinicians. 

Peer supporters are  commonly employed in many areas of healthcare, such as diabetes, cancer, and mental illness. A considerable body of research (including our own) has confirmed many benefits of peer support and demonstrates the power of incorporating patient perspectives and cultural context into healthcare. Studies have found peer support to be effective for a number of reasons.

  • engage people who need healthcare, including hard-to-reach populations 

  • educate people about prevention, care, and treatment

  • cut the high costs of traditional healthcare

What are the types of peer support?

In the context of mental health, peers are individuals who have first-hand experience with mental health challenges and have embarked on their own journey through self-discovery and recovery. While some peers are specifically trained and certified to be “peer support specialists”, there are other roles peers can play as well. 

Peer support specialists: Peers that are specially trained and certified as “peer support specialists”  are typically found working collaboratively with clinicians in a range of mental healthcare settings, such as comprehensive care programs [ADD LINK] and hospital-based psychiatric care. Since peer support specialists have often been through similar programs and experiences, they offer unique support and perspective to program participants and patients, helping them navigate their recovery journeys. Peer support specialists play an important role in clinical settings, using their first-hand experiences to advocate on behalf of those engaging in treatment.

Other peer support roles: It is also common to find peer supporters serving on crisis lines, leading peer-run support groups, or providing active listening via peer support apps. Generally, in these settings, peers receive less extensive training as compared to peer support specialists working in healthcare settings, where certification is more common. 

Through peer support, you’ll be able to share your experience with someone who really does ‘get it’. They can help you navigate and understand your experiences, the healthcare system, and even relationships with friends and family members.

Why does peer support exist?

Peer support exists to bring together individuals with shared experiences and build a support network where you feel fully accepted, understood, and important. After all, it’s human nature to seek connection with and validation from people in our lives. It’s why we often turn to our friends, partners, and colleagues when we’ve had a bad day. 

It’s therapeutic to be heard and have our feelings validated. 

But when it comes to discussing our mental health, it’s easy to fall silent. The fact is, language often fails. Summoning the courage to open up or finding the words to express what’s going on on the inside can be hard for many reasons.

  • The language around mental health that we're familiar with through mainstream media or from medical sources is often insufficient (or downright unhelpful) for fully explaining or make sense of our experiences

  • It can feel vulnerable to explain what’s going on, especially to someone who has never experienced something like it 

  • It can be hard to  know or verbalize what you need from someone else

  • When pain or confusion colors our thinking, it can be hard to believe that help is available, or that someone can actually help us

  • Mental health challenges aren’t always accepted as ‘real’ in our society, or they are dismissed as personal failures

  • Navigating the support options for what you’re experiencing can feel overwhelming

  • Experiencing mental health challenges can feel lonely and scary

  • People living with health challenges or different abilities are often overlooked and may not receive the same rights as others

For these reasons and more, the availability of peer support offerings, both within and outside of clinical settings, online and offline, have continued to grow. Seeing ourselves (the pretty parts AND all the rest) reflected in others assures us that we are worthy, and that we belong.

“I think it’s really time we start creating a new language for ourselves that reflects all the complexity and brilliance that we hold inside.” 

- Sascha Altman DuBrul

Finding peer support options

There are lots of ways to find peer support, no matter what you’re experiencing. Here are a few helpful resources:


IRL (in real life)

Interested in learning how to become a peer specialist? Learn how >

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