Peer support dates back hundreds of years; in 18th century France, the governor of Bicêtre Hospital, Jean Baptiste Pussin, realized the value of employing people who had previously received their services. In the 1840s in Britain, Richard Paternoster formed the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society, an organization to campaign to reform the mental health hospital (then “madhouse”) system. Alcoholics Anonymous started up in 1935, and in the 1970s, inspired by the self-help movement and focus on civil rights, individuals who had survived the abuses of psychiatric hospitals started forming their own support groups.
At MHA’s 2019 Annual Conference, Lisa Kugler, Psy.D., and Clarence Jordan from Beacon Health Options led a breakout session titled “Challenging the Status Quo: Breaking the Mold in the 21st Century.” While peer support isn’t new, it’s a field that is growing and changing rapidly. So where are we now and how do we keep moving forward?
Between 2008 and 2018, over 30 state Medicaid programs added peer support as a covered service. There are a number of common services across the country - drop-in centers, respite facilities, warm lines, and self-directed care programs. But there’s still a lot to be done – adolescent/young adult peer support is only covered by Medicaid in seven states. Peer support programming for families is on the rise as a reimbursable service. There are also opportunities to expand peer support in a way that is tailored to people with intellectual disabilities, physical health concerns/chronic diseases, older adults, and the LGBTQ+ community.
It is important to make sure that as the peer support field grows, it is done in a meaningful way. There is a lot of power in being an evidence-based practice that, by nature, focuses on human connection – and a tremendous amount of potential to reach the subsets of the population who need that the most.