This is a moment for peer support. It offers a way to help alleviate the current mental health crisis. Worldwide, stress and anxiety increased by 25% during the pandemic. In the US, depression rates tripled early in the pandemic, rising from 8.5% to 27.6%. Although constraints eased in 2021, depression rates rose another 5.2% that year.
At the same time, mental health issues have increased among children and teens. In the 10 years prior to 2019, depression rates rose by 40% in high school children. The pandemic accelerated this trend, as children experienced grief, loss, isolation, and loneliness. The crisis became so severe that several pediatric health groups declared a National Emergency of Children and Adolescent Mental Health in 2021.
All of these trends mean the demand for therapy is surging even as many therapists have no room for new patients. The therapist shortage compounds the mental health crisis. In this situation, peer support is a great tool to help people cope before, during, and after a mental health crisis.
Peer support brings many benefits
One definition of peer support is: “giving and receiving social, practical, and emotional support between two or more people, based on sharing knowledge.” Programs incorporating peer support can be in-person, online, or combinations of the two. Generally, peer support programs benefit people in many ways. They can increase feelings of belonging. Online peer support has been shown to increase the feeling that you’re a part of a community, which reduces loneliness. Such programs also provide a way to compare perspectives and get feedback on your experiences. In addition, peer support programs are effective partners with traditional mental health treatments. Some researchers think peer support is the future of mental health care.
Online peer support extends these benefits to people with mobility issues or those who live in rural areas. Ending the travel hurdles that may be a part of attending in-person meetings means more people can take advantage of the program. In addition, online programs are comfortable for people who are ill-at-ease in person. They allow people to meet their needs for personal contact without being face-to-face. Equally important, many people find peer support more useful than advice from an expert; people like getting practical advice from others like them. This is especially true during recovery from a crisis. Overall, online peer support programs are associated with increases in self-efficacy and self-management, higher self-reported outcome scores, improved relationships with clinicians, lower healthcare usage, and improved engagement with treatments. Finally, in peer support settings, people have the opportunity to share what they have learned with others, which has healing benefits itself.
To summarize, online peer support communities help across the entire span of mental health needs. They can increase feelings of belonging at any stage in someone’s life. Peer support supplements sessions with mental health professionals. Online support can encourage people as they learn new coping skills on the way to recovery. Peer support programs can lessen the impact of supply and demand problems in accessing mental health services, making them a perfect fit for this moment of crisis.