Talking to a therapist is great. Trust me, I’ve done it. A lot! But sometimes, talking to a friend is even better.
We all need people who can relate to us in a personal way, who’ve experienced some of the same things
that we have, who support us without trying to diagnose us or give us a plan of treatment. Don’t get me
wrong: treatment is important. But sometimes the thing that really helps us move toward healing and
recovery, is being able to relate to someone who has done it. This is the power of peer work.
In the world of mental health and substance abuse, a peer is someone with “Lived experience.” In other
words, they have a mental illness or are in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. They may be
volunteers who participate in a mutual support group or act as a sponsor to others who are newly in
recovery. They may be paid to provide peer counseling or mentorship at a treatment or other
community agency. The common denominator is that they offer a living, breathing example of hope to
those who may have lost hope over the course of their illness or addiction, and this is no small thing.
I once heard depression described at a support group as an old, dirty coat. It is falling apart. It has a bad
smell to it. But we are so used to wearing it that we leave it in place, comfortable in our discomfort. This
is not to say that getting rid of depression is as easy as taking off a coat, but it describes a state where
we may not take any action because we are so used to wearing our coat. Sometimes seeing another
person who is working hard to peel away this coat, bit by bit, and is reaping the benefits of feeling
better, living healthier and seeing more success, is enough to awaken us and move us in the same
This is the power of peer work.
Similarly, a person in active addiction may be living minute by minute. They may be doing everything
they can to continue their addiction because it is so very painful to stop. Things like withdrawal
symptoms, trauma and emotional pain that has been numbed by the addiction, shattered relationships,
and wasted opportunities will all have to be dealt with in a sober state. But when we meet people in a
place where their addiction has become more painful than quitting, for example in the hospital after an
overdose or in court after an arrest, we have a golden and sometimes fleeing opportunity to help. This is
where a peer can explain that they too have dealt with the pain of addiction and the challenge of
quitting, and have regained a healthy and successful life. This offering of hope is the power of peer
MHA has supported peer work for several decades. Our previous director, Jim Lafferty, drove up and
down the state of Delaware to facilitate the development of peer support groups for people with
depression and these groups continue today. We are also in partnership with DSAMH to provide peer
education that allows peers to gain a professional certification through the Delaware Certification
Board, officially recognizing and providing a vehicle of compensation for the value of peer work.
If you are living in recovery, interested in becoming a certified peer, and hoping to develop a career in
helping others to overcome mental illness and substance abuse, get in touch with us at 654-6833, or
visit Peer Services at MHA, to learn more about the power of peer work.
Written by Emily Coggin Vera, Executive Director of the Mental Health Association In Delaware