Those were two of the factors identified in a new study of whether and how a peer education program reduced self-stigma around mental illness. The researchers noted that internalized stigma has been shown to have a negative impact on people with mental health concerns and creates a major barrier to seeking help.
The study, published online ahead of print in Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal last month, found that matching older adults with depression with peer educators in recovery from depression “significantly reduced” internalized stigma and also improved mental health literacy.
Easing the grip of self-stigma is far from the only benefit of peer support, whether through a formal program or on Internet forums. Connecting with other people who share the experience of living with bipolar delivers perhaps the most powerful recovery tool of all: hope.
Denise K. found the help she needed to make it through a low point after her bipolar diagnosis by visiting online support groups.
“Friends can offer support, but the extra level of understanding is missing,” she explains in “Getting Better Together” (bp Magazine, Fall 2014).
Along with empathy, people who have “been there, done that” can offer practical advice on what helps with day-to-day management of bipolar. (Research shows that peer-to-peer programs have positive results for medical conditions as well, including diabetes, stroke prevention, and even breast feeding.)
Peer support can even improve the outcome of treatment, according to an April 2014 study in Psychiatric Services. Working with so-called peer specialists or “consumer-providers”—individuals who have received training or certification to do a kind of introductory-level counseling—led to fewer re-hospitalizations and improved engagement with treatment, the study authors concluded.
Experts like Patrick Corrigan, PsyD, a noted researcher on self-stigma and self-help, stress that finding the right kind of peer support may take some shopping around. They also raise a few cautions, since a support group with too much conflict or social interactions with people who aren’t stable may end up threatening your own recovery.