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Peer support involves having people with lived experience provide services. Having peers in a support role allows them to model what is possible after one goes through extreme emotional distress. Peer support is mutually beneficial. According to the “helper therapy” principle described by social psychologist Frank Riessman, “helping others is deemed absolutely essential to helping oneself.”

Most mental health services are offered by certified professionals who play an authoritarian role in the treatment process. In recent decades, a powerful movement for peer-run services has been growing and making a significant impact in people’s lives.

The late Judi Chamberlin emphasized the need to distinguish between real alternatives to psychiatry and those that are alternatives only in name. A true alternative grants all decision-making power to individuals using the services.

The Recovery Learning Community in Massachusetts is one of the most well-known examples of a peer-run organization.

Hearing voices groups, which started in the Netherlands and now meet all around the world, are a fast-growing peer-run service. These groups are based on the idea that voice hearing is part of the human condition, not a pathology. Online databases are available with details on the meeting time and location of groups happening in each country.

Alternatives to suicide groups are another type of peer support group for people suffering with suicidal thoughts or actions.

For those who don’t have a peer support group in their local community or don’t feel comfortable attending one, online forums have been valuable. The Hearing Voices Network, Icarus Project, New Light Beings, Facebook, and Reddit have hosted these forums.

For those in need of immediate support during crisis, peer respite houses offer an alternative to using a psychiatric hospital. Although the number of research studies conducted on them is limited, given that peer respites are still in their early stages of development, the American Journal of Community Psychology published a randomized controlled trial in 2008 comparing peer respite to psychiatric hospitals.

The study revealed, first, that participants using peer respite houses experienced significantly greater improvement than participants in psychiatric hospitals and, second, that the average cost of staying at a peer respite was one-third of the cost of staying at a psychiatric hospital.

Similar to soteria houses, peer respite houses emphasize being with people rather than doing to people. Afiya is one peer respite house located in western Massachusetts.

Concerns about the peer model have surfaced since the government began training and paying what are called “certified peer specialists.” Critics argue this professional title reinforces the medical model in what is supposed to be a non-authoritarian peer support system driven by lived experience.

To ensure that peer support programs are deliberately organized, psychiatric survivors started an organization called Intentional Peer Support, which trains providers in how to form mutually supportive relationships.

Now that we have seen how peer support has brought hope and wellness into our lives, our next segment will discuss how human connection played an important role in sparking a movement for social change.


Watch the rest of the Voices for Choices series