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When Loneliness Sets In, Peer Support Can Help

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mental health-covid-19-depression-pandemic-mental health support-peer supporters

Peer support is mental health help from someone just like you — someone who has lived experience with a mental health condition.


Kat McIntosh

Manager of Global Peer Support, Mental Health America

The past two years have brought with them a great deal of loneliness, as Americans struggle with isolation and lack of social interaction throughout multiple waves of COVID-19 variants.

Among the over 7 million individuals that took an online mental health screen with Mental Health America in the last two years, feelings of loneliness and isolation were cited as one of the top reasons for mental health struggles.

Scientific research has produced a similar finding. An investigation published in JAMA found that the prevalence of depression symptoms in the United States has increased three-fold compared to data from before the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals with fewer social resources, fewer economic resources, and greater exposure to stressors reported a greater burden of depression symptoms.

Empathy and empowerment

During these difficult times, people are in need of more mental health support. One great way to receive mental health support but also to connect with others who have been in the same situation is through peer support.

Peer support is a mental healthcare option where a person receives help and guidance from a peer support specialist, who is someone that has their own lived experience with a mental health condition or substance use disorder.

Peer support specialists focus on the entire person and empower individuals to take ownership of their well-being. They also help those they support to stay engaged in monitoring and improving their overall health.

While many people do not know about peer supports specialists, there are an estimated 30,000 working around the United States. Peer support is also expanding both in numbers and in the settings in which peers serve people. Peers can be seen in inpatient psychiatric units, emergency departments, peer-run organizations, telehealth, outpatient services, private practice alongside mental health professionals, and primary care settings.

Peer supporters meet people where they are, and as more people learn about peers and the importance of recovery-oriented systems, peers will play a central role in supporting people living with mental health conditions and helping to empower them to live meaningful lives in the community.

Proven success

There is also a large body of research showing peer support is beneficial and successful. Research studies have indicated that peer support improves symptoms of depression more than usual care for depression.

In another study, participants who received peer-based services felt that their peer providers communicated in ways that were more validating than those in treatment with more traditional providers.

In general, peer support helps individuals have a sense of hope about recovery. Individuals receiving peer support report overall increases in their quality of life and life satisfaction.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), other proven benefits of peer support include: reduced hospitalization, decreased self-stigma, increased community engagement, increased engagement in treatment, and increased social support and social functioning.

In the age of isolation and loneliness that we are living in, peer support can offer hope and connection. It is a mental health option that not everyone knows about, but one that has huge benefits and proven successes.

All 50 states have peer support options, and you can research options in your local area online. Peer support is also Medicaid reimbursable in most states. You can learn more about peer support and find educational peer support materials at www.mhanational.org/center-peer-support.

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