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A recent article was written discussing the value of peer counseling.  The following piece discusses the article and provides a link to it.  The idea of people helping others go through similar experiences is a natural way of living and making meaning of challenges in life.  Yet, sometimes peer counseling can present a very difficult challenge.  One needs to be self-aware of when their support is coming from a place of pre-experience vs. a place which is appropriate to the person with the current problem. 

A “peer” in the world of mental health and substance abuse lingo means a fellow person who has also been diagnosed with a mental health or substance abuse disorder. Peers come together on their own in self-help support groups (both in the local communities and online) to help one another with emotional support and the knowledge that can only come from having been there themselves.

Benedict Carey writing in today’s New York Times details the impact of peers who go one step farther and act as peer counselors, helping people with mental disorders or substance abuse disorders with training that exceeds that of another layperson patient.

Peer counselors are an important component of America’s fragmented mental health care system, filling in the many gaps (especially in the public mental health system). These gaps are especially prevalent in the U.S. because there are usually two different public systems: one that treat mental disorders and one that treats substance abuse disorders. Few public community mental health systems have integrated these two components in systematic, comprehensive “dual diagnosis” programs.

The article suggests that peer support is somehow controversial (or perhaps was decades ago), but I find that it is rarely controversial nowadays with anyone who works in community mental health. Peer support is now seen as a valuable contribution to help people through the recovery process.

The mental health care system has long made use of former patients as counselors and the practice has been controversial, in part because doctors and caseworkers have questioned their effectiveness. But recent research suggests that peer support can reduce costs, and in 2007, federal health officials ruled that states could bill for the services under Medicaid — if the state had a system in place to train and certify peer providers.

In the years since, “peer support has just exploded; I have been in this field for 25 years, and I have never seen anything happen so quickly,” said Larry Davidson, a mental health researcher at Yale. “Peers are living, breathing proof that recovery is possible, that it is real.

The article is a little light on specific references to research, however. But it works better as a personal interest story anyway, highlighting the story of Antonio Lambert. Lambert suffers from something the profession calls “dual diagnosis” — a mental disorder diagnosis combined with a substance abuse problem.

Lambert went from down-and-out and at the end of his ropes, to finding hope and meaning in peer support. After going through a recovery program, he started doing peer support work:

It was a friend from church who told him about peer-support work, showing him an ad for peer specialists at a local mental health clinic, Envisions of Life, and he jumped at the chance, taking a pay cut in exchange for a caseload.

And when he tired of that, he moved on to his next career advancement — training peers and developing peer training programs with Dr. Steve Harrington to form a company, Recover Resources.

It’s a great, heart-warming story that demonstrates that recovery is not only possible — it’s attainable for nearly anybody who sets their mind to it and makes a commitment to it. It’s rarely an easy or quick road, but it’s one that is greatly helped by the efforts of Mr. Lambert and his fellow peer leaders.

Read the full article: Ex-Convict Uses Battle With Addiction and Mental Illness to Help Others

Dr. John Grohol is the CEO and founder of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues — as well as the intersection of technology and human behavior — since 1992. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking and is a founding board member and treasurer of the Society for Participatory Medicine.