Peer Mentoring and Mental Health Recovery

A peer mentor is typically seen as someone to look up to in a professional sense; someone who knows the ropes, someone to guide you, someone to protect you from making the mistakes they made, and someone to go to when you are unsure or need advice. Peer mentors exist at the school level with upper classmen mentoring underclassmen, and are a well established institution in numerous professions. Recently, however, the use of peer mentors in the mental healthcare field has found its way into American practices. Interestingly enough, peer mentors for mental health recovery treatment plans differ quite remarkably in reference to their duties between the American model of support and that developed by practitioners in the United Kingdom.

In cutting-edge American mental health facilities, one is beginning to notice the development of peer support groups and peer mentors. These peer mentors are mental healthcare consumers well on their way to successful recovery who have been employed by the facility they are receiving care from to help those at lower functional levels with similar diagnosis.

The benefits implicit therein are that the peer mentor has first-hand knowledge of what the mentee is experiencing. They understand the withdrawal pains. They can empathize with the frustrations of self-forgiveness. And they can guide mentees to more productive paths. Furthermore, peer mentors humanize the face of mental healthcare for each individual consumer; the treatment becomes relatable and believable because it is coming from the mouth of someone with the mentee’s very same diagnosis who has picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and made a success of themselves with the prescribed treatment plan.

In the U.S. context, peer mentors are typically a supplementary service; they are not primary care, they merely act as another factor of treatment. They exist to teach mental healthcare consumers how to function properly in the world again; mentors teach mentees how to get to the bus, how to get a transit card, where to get their groceries, where the bank is, etc. Professional providers still maintain their position as primary care giver and occupy the main psychotherapy role. Mental healthcare consumers argue this is very beneficial for mental health recovery, but would like to see more out of their peer mentors.

In the United Kingdom, however, peer mentors almost take the place of primary care givers in regard to psychoanalytical duties. When an individual with a mental illness experiences a downswing, it is their peer mentor who receives a call, not their doctor. This comes at a loss, however, for in taking on such a high-level role, peer mentors in the United Kingdom tend to ignore lower-level functions such as re-educating their mentees on the necessities, such as how to catch the bus, where to get their transit pass, etc with the expectation that the mentee’s support network will take on such duties.

The inconsistency in how the concept of peer mentors and peer support groups is approached is symptomatic of the differences between American and U.K. mental healthcare beliefs. In the United Kingdom, mental illnesses are seen as a communal responsibility; they are not shameful, it is merely the job of an individual’s support network to emotionally and physically encourage the individual throughout his/her treatment plan. In the United States, however, a mental illness is seen as an impurity in the family, and is followed far too frequently with alienation from social support groups.

Thus the U.K. peer mentors, as in following with their culture, take the lead in guiding mentee’s through troubled water they have already traversed. In America, mentors must take on the lonely role of the mental healthcare consumer’s only support group, thus teach them the necessities of life while leaving psychological treatment to the doctor.

Both approaches have their benefits for mental health recovery. Consumers seem to indicate preference towards approaching their peer mentors with day-to-day problems rather than a psychologist or psychiatrist who may sympathize, but not empathize, with their diagnosis, thus profess favoritism towards the U.K. model. Contrarily, however, one cannot change an entire culture, and American consumers enjoy the basic knowledge bestowed upon them by peer support groups; thus express a need for the American style as well.

Peer mentors can prove immensely influential in mental health recovery with regard to providing motivation and hope. Hope is a critical factor in recovery from mental illnesses, as can be read in my article Spirituality and Hope in Mental Health. Peer support, and its role in mental health recovery, is yet to be firmly established in the American context however; thus we must wait with abated breath as the movement grows to see what role peer mentors will take on next.