The Importance of Peer Support

From the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in April of 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, about the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, that the “moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King, who attempted suicide in his youth and who scholars now believe suffered from deep depressions and possibly bipolar, applied that philosophy to a variety of causes.

I believe that the same way the moral arc of the universe has been bending toward justice, the arc of treatment bends toward recovery.

Advances in medicine, epidemiology, crisis care, somatic treatments like Electroconvulsive Therapy and other advances over the past fifty years have created opportunities for people like me to survive the pain of terrible madness, the frustration of obliterated executive function and the persecution of voices. In another time, so many of us who are here and are functioning would have succeed to the illness, either by death by suicide, accident, permanent institutionalization or isolation.

 One of the unspoken elements of this change has been the advent of peer and family recovery as a crucial element to healing. One prominent psychiatrist I know once said that if he had a choice to only send a bipolar patient to a therapist or a peer support group, he would choose the knowledge and support from peers. He believed, as I did when I ran the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance of Northern Virginia’s groups, that the great comfort that comes from support is only rivaled by the knowledge that allows those of us in the groups to avoid having to relevant the wheel each time we face a new challenge with symptoms, medications and stressors. People ask when what got me on my feet after my first major episodes and my answer is always unflinching: Family support was very important, but I could not have done it without medication and that support group that meets at Centreville Methodist Church.

For it was in my peers that I learned that I was, in fact, not alone. It was in my peers that I learned that it was okay for the medications to not work out for years while you were searching for the right path. For it was there, I learned to separate the good and bad in me, from the good and bad in my disease. It was there that I learned I could be of value to others.

My thoughts on this topic were kindled a week ago after meeting with one of my associates at Goose Creek Consulting and the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Northern Virginia, Jeanne Comeau. Jeanne is a mother of someone with mental illness and you can see her passion for helping those suffering from mental illness, and family members who care a similarly heavy burden.

I was impressed to hear all the things that NAMI-Northern Virginia is doing to help. It is running a long list of groups for peers, young adults, family members and friends, community stakeholders and the general public. This work enhances, and in some cases surpasses, what treatment providers are trying to do.

One of the reasons Goose Creek Coaching has put an emphasis on groups as of late is that we believe that peer support can be as, if not more, beneficial than some of our individual work. But we also believe that peer-to-peer groups, without a clinician, have an equal, if not better, impact. That’s why we have opened our doors to meetings, from a peer-led meditation group to a Depression Bipolar Support Alliance of Northern Virginia Bipolar Loved Ones group. We have also invited NAMI, a borderline personality disorder group and other groups to use our space free-of-charge. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders (CHADD) offers similar peer and family groups for people dealing with ADD/ADHD across Northern Virginia.

Any responsible business acts with its bottom line in mind, but we have a moral obligation to serve our mission, which is to help people, regardless of their ability to pay, to find the help that they need. That is part of the reason we are so flexible with our fee structure when clients have difficulties paying.

While you may not be in the position to do what we are doing, you might be able to encourage a friend or a family who is struggling with the effects of mental illness in themselves or others, to seek help. If that’s not an option, you can always support these groups by volunteering, participating in a fundraiser walk or donating.

What ever you can do, it will help.

I know. From professional and personal experience, and the hundred hands clasped beside me who have walked together through this year on this now not so lonely road to recovery.

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