The use of peer support to assist patients with serious mental illness (SMI) at mental health centers has increased over the past 15 years—spurred in part by recommendations of President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health to place greater emphasis on patient resiliency and recovery in mental health care.
“The role of psychiatrists and other health professionals should not be understated in patient recovery, but when it comes to understanding a patient’s life experience, we are in another world,” said William Sledge, M.D., the George D. and Esther S. Gross Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Yale and former medical director of Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. “The mentors are able to connect and build relationships in a way we cannot. And that relationship is a primary vehicle for change.”
To qualify for a peer mentor position, individuals are expected to be in recovery from an SMI themselves, have strong interpersonal skills, and a desire to help others in the community. The mentors receive training in principles of recovery by Chyrell Bellamy, Ph.D., M.S.W., director of peer services and research at the Program for Recovery and Community Health, and they participate in weekly team meetings with supervisors. Following training, peer mentors are given independence in how and how often they provide support.
“We know that mentors, through their shared experiences, will come up with things we could never think of,” said Martha Staeheli, Ph.D., an associate research scientist who leads the weekly team meetings. “We let them tell their own stories and let magic and alchemy take its course.”
Nine months after the participants were discharged, those assigned to the peer mentor program had on average improved physical health, better hygiene/self-care, fewer unusual thoughts or behaviors, and less substance use than those receiving standard care. Additionally, the individuals in the mentor group had double the average time to psychiatric rehospitalization than those receiving standard care—270 days compared with 135 days.
“Peer support programs remain a contentious issue,” said Larry Davidson, Ph.D., who has directed the Program for Recovery and Community Health since 2000. Some physicians still have concerns that working in a mental health setting may be too stressful or burdensome for people recovering from SMI or that they need extra supervision, which bogs down the rest of the staff, he said. “Getting good data to the contrary, particularly our rehospitalization data, is important.”
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