Peer support organizations
Because of the stigma of mental illness, some people with mental health challenges may feel isolated and that they have nobody to talk to. It can also be difficult for people who have not experienced mental illnesses to be able to truly understand what it means to live with these illnesses.
As the Mental Health Commission of Canada says, “Peer support works because people who have experience with mental health problems and illnesses can offer support, encouragement, and hope to each other when facing similar situations.”
Peer support programs originally developed because the mental health system was not inclusive and responsive to everyone who needed it. Peer support organizations have now been recognized as a valuable part of our mental health system and funded by provincial and territorial health systems since the 1970s and 1980s in Canada.
Peer support programs are usually independently run. They can deliver services in many different settings: workplaces, schools, clinics, hospitals, or non-profit organizations. Some programs serve individuals with mental health challenges while others may offer one-on-one or group sessions for family members and loved ones. These programs can be very empowering by allowing people to share their stories and to benefit from peers who have gone through the same (or similar) experiences. They also empower people with mental illness and loved ones by recognizing them as experts in their own care, and providing them with an opportunity to allow others to benefit from what they know.
Peer support programs can play a critical part in recovery from mental illness and in remaining healthy. They should be seen as part of an integrated mental health care system. But we need to lobby for these programs to be expanded and better funded. Peer support workers need to be trained, organizations need office space, infrastructure and further program funding, and health care and social agencies need training and funding to integrate peer support into their service offerings.