Struggling to cope? An online ‘mental health peer’ can lend support

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When Harmony Hobbs, a 38-year-old freelance writer living in Baton Rouge, embarked on sobriety she was going to AA meetings and in therapy, but some of her best support she found in an unexpected place: the internet.

“When I started trying to get sober, someone I know in recovery invited me to a women’s only Facebook group for others struggling with sobriety,” says Hobbs, who recently achieved 18 months clean. “It has been so valuable as resource for me. As a parent of three, I can’t always drop what I am doing and go to an AA meeting. It’s hard enough just to make it to therapy. With these women, I can be sitting in the kitchen, have a moment where I think about walking to the store to get vodka, and just hop on there and say I’m struggling, and they’re there.”

Hobbs recounts one particularly powerful moment, when, knowing she had to dispose of her son’s Adderall when he no longer needed it, she couldn’t bring herself to do it alone. “No one was available to come over and be with me, so I went into the Facebook group and said, ‘I want you to watch me dump these pills,’ and I did it live. That held me accountable. I really think that might have saved me from myself.”

A mental health peer is not a therapist

Such is the beauty of having a ‘mental health peer,’ which Seneca Williams, a licensed mental health counselor defines as “an accountability partner that has recovered from or is successfully managing their symptoms of mental health to support you through your mental health condition.”

“A mental health peer is not licensed or credentialed provider of mental health treatment,” Williams clarifies, and it’s important to note that such a person can’t replace a mental health professional. Instead, a mental health peer (or group of peers) is an additional resource for coping. Sometimes they can help in ways that therapists can’t.”

“A key benefit to a peer is that [they will] speak honestly about their personal experience,” says Monica Elden, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in integrative psychotherapy, coaching and training. “A therapist will not reveal or share as much personally the way a peer can.”

A mental health peer is different than a regular friend

A mental health peer may wind up becoming a good friend, as has been the case for Hobbs, but you’ll likely never call this person your best friend, and that’s a good thing. Ideally, a mental health peer is more like an objective but empathetic confidante who has gone through the same types of mental health challenges that you’re presently navigating and can talk with you from a place of personal wisdom. A mental health peer does not coddle or indulge you, just as they don’t judge or dismiss you. And they certainly don’t enable you.

What is productive to healing, is feeling understood by another who knows what it’s like to be in your shoes.

“A regular friend can be supportive, listen and empathize, but they may also enable unhealthy patterns that don’t make your mental health better,” says Williams. “[They can] be supportive but cannot give you useful feedback from their experience managing that mental health issue, because they have not had to deal with it and their perspective is different. They can sympathize or empathize, but their inability to completely grasp what you are feeling, can make you feel more isolated, which is very counterproductive to healing.”

What is productive to healing, is feeling understood by another who knows what it’s like to be in your shoes.

“For me personally, there is a tremendous amount of value in bonding with someone over having moved forward from that trauma or illness,” says Delton Russell, member engagement specialist at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions. “Who better to understand and support me than someone that’s been there? Think of it as if you have lived in a particular region your whole life and then you move to a foreign country and while living there you meet someone that grew up the next town over from you and understands your dialect and shares the same love you have for a local restaurant. It doesn’t mean that your [other] friends are any less to you, but you’ll likely have some kind of bond with the person that comes from the same area as you.”