Peer support groups for mental illness: Do they help?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published October 11, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Group peer support is a beneficial resource for individuals struggling with mental health conditions.

  • Such support is often led by a peer support worker and can take place in person or through virtual online community groups.

  • Physicians should consider recommending it to patients, as it’s been shown to decrease stigma and mental illness-related hospital admissions, improve social and communication skills, empower individuals, and increase the quality of life.

Group peer support benefits individuals with mental health disorders, research shows.

It may also be beneficial for individuals struggling with substance abuse. How can clinicians best utilize it to help patients in need?

How does it work?

Peer support involves interactions centered around mental health (and addiction) recovery between individuals who have all experienced being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Peer support groups generally take place in a community-like setting and are led by a peer worker.[]

Most individuals who participate in a peer support group have undergone formalized treatment (such as behavioral therapy and/or medication) with a clinician.

They typically participate in group peer support as an adjunct to formalized treatment or as ongoing long-term care, according to a research study published in International Journal of Mental Health Systems (IJMHS).[]

Peer support groups have many potential goals, depending on what an individual is seeking. In general, these groups promote connection and inspire hope, improvement of communication and coping skills, and creation of strategies for self-empowerment. Peer support groups could include online and in-person groups.

Mental health support groups may be specific to the disorder, such as groups for depression or schizophrenia. Alcoholics Anonymous is an example of a peer support group for individuals diagnosed with a substance use disorder.

You can find online and in-person peer support groups through organizations such as NAMI and Mental Health America. Examples of these groups include:

Peer support workers

A peer support worker is an individual who has been successful in their mental health recovery process and can help others navigate recovery, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).[]

They are, in general, non-healthcare professionals who may or may not have undergone workshops and training. Goals of peer support workers include:

  • Advocating for individuals in recovery

  • Sharing recovery and community resources such as housing and employment opportunities

  • Leading peer support group meetings

  • Helping to mentor individuals in group peer support

  • Leading activities within the recovery community

Online vs offline

Traditional peer support groups start as in-person gatherings, usually meeting at locations such as churches, community centers, or recreation centers.

But online peer support groups have become common—even more so since the onset of COVID-19.

The IJMHS study found that online peer support groups share similar positive traits to in-person ones, including social connectedness, stigma reduction, coping skills, empowerment, and helpful insights into navigating healthcare decisions.

Online peer support groups have benefits and pitfalls compared with in-person groups. The IJMHS article stated it may be best to use in-person peer support in conjunction with online groups.

The anonymity offered online may help facilitate open, non-judgmental discussions.

For this reason, online groups have also been found to lower resistance to participation for those concerned with stigma or who experience social anxiety.

However, online interactions may hinder exposure to real-life communication and relationships—key components of the recovery process. Concerns about online groups include excessive use leading to social avoidance and a decrease in offline interactions.

What the research says

Do peer support groups work for patients with mental health disorders? Research says yes—but to what extent? That’s difficult to measure since mental health symptoms are fluid; they improve, worsen, and come and go with time.

A mental health disorder is never cured; the focus is on treating the symptoms.

Authors of an article published in The Qualitative Report wrote that peer support groups are best used in conjunction with behavioral therapy and/or medication for the best symptom improvement outcomes.[] The SAMHSA research suggests that peer recovery support may result in:

  • Increased quality of life, empowerment, social functioning, community engagement, and engagement in treatment

  • Development of healthy coping tools

  • Decreased self-stigma, inpatient hospitalization for mental illness, and costs to the mental healthcare system

What this means for you

Research suggests that peer support groups benefit individuals diagnosed with a mental health disorder (and/or substance use disorder). It's important to be current on this topic so you can communicate the benefits to patients and provide additional resources, like where to find peer support groups, which can be used in conjunction with behavioral therapy and medication.

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