What is a Peer?

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Finding peer support can be a complex process, during which the most straightforward question can often go unasked. 

What exactly, in the context of mental health treatment, is a peer? 

Let’s give that question some appropriate attention, to help create a clearer picture of the many forms a peer can take, and the types of community that can be created as a result. 

Who are peer workers, and where can they be found?

Peer workers, according to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, are “people who have been successful in the recovery process who help others experiencing similar situations.”

A peer worker or group isn’t the sole means of treating a problem, but is a valuable part of gaining traction in the face of overwhelming difficulty. Peer support affirms an individuals’ experience by offering a setting in which empathy, understanding and respect are foundational tenets. 

Making assumptions about where a peer group can be found ― or their specific background― can limit the expansive possibilities of a peer and a peer support network.   

Peer connections have dynamic diversity and exist across the spectrum of lived experience. A peer can share more than a similar mental health diagnosis. A peer can be:

  • A classmate
  • A work colleague
  • Someone with a shared ethnic or cultural background
  • A member of your gym
  • A creative collaborator 
  • A neighbor

The barriers to establishing a connection with a peer are small when you grasp the tremendous amount of shared experience people have, outside of their mental health struggles. 

This is important to keep in mind when joining ―or starting― a peer support group

Looking for connection beyond mental illness

Common ground and shared life understandings can be found in a specific area, like battling depression, but can extend beyond that one area in ways that reinforce the bond of the group and the trust between individuals. 

When choosing a peer support group one should consider the particular connections they value most. For many it’s simply about sharing their own story, and being accepted without judgement by people who have experienced a similar issue themselves. 

And that is certainly enough.

But the evolution of peer support networks and services has made it possible to find peers from all different backgrounds, and in a variety of forums. 

Peers can be found within school and work settings, religious environments and recreational locales like amatuer sports leagues and exercise classes. If you are dealing with mental health issues and you feel connected with a social circle, it’s likely there is a peer network or resource with ties to that circle.  

Traditional and newer settings

A traditional setting typically consists of in-person meetings led by a trained peer support specialist or facilitator who helps guide conversation around shared challenges and struggles. 

One-on-one meetings with a certified peer specialist are another well-established way for people to find shared connection and get stigma-free feedback and support. 

But additional settings can include phone calls, text messages, home visits, outdoor activities like a walk, and online conversations. Finding ―and providing―support has never taken more forms or been available in more environments. 

To find or lead a peer group take advantage of the many online resources available, as well as utilizing the networks and guidance of local health clinics and community centers. 

Peer support exists in many forms, and is available to anyone who needs it.