The Power of Peer Support

Today, at the 2014 National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (Awareness Day) national launch event, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is shining a light on the importance of peer support for young adults with behavioral health conditions. This year’s event is focusing on youth and young adults (ages 16-25) who have mental and/or substance use disorders. To help youth and young adults become healthy and productive members of society, it is essential to understand the mental health and co-occurring substance use issues in this population and how these problems impact their ability to succeed in life.

One out of every 10 older adolescents, ages 16 to 17, had a major depressive episode in the past year and one out of every five young adults, ages 18 to 25, had any mental illness in the past year. This age group relies primarily on peers for support. The peer support concept is about connecting with someone who has similar lived experience; someone who will listen, understand, and share hope or guidance when needed. That is where the young adults being recognized at this year’s Awareness Day launch event shine brightest.

Chiara de Blasio, daughter of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, epitomizes the idea of “sharing hope.” Ms. de Blasio said, “I feel an obligation to speak out because adolescence is a time of vulnerability and insecurity, and we need to help each other during difficult times. We can only start helping our youth when we acknowledge that young people with mental and substance abuse disorders need our support.” Ms. de Blasio is being honored with a special recognition award, presented by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, for speaking out about her experience with depression and substance use and serving as a positive example to young adults with behavioral health conditions.

Four additional young adults are being recognized for their leadership in supporting peers with behavioral health conditions in their communities. These young adults—Jim, Michelle, Qaiel, and Sean—will be sharing their personal experiences with peer support at the launch event. They will also be offering insights on ways to improve services and supports for and understanding of  young adults with behavioral health disorders, particularly in the areas of education, employment, housing,  and the juvenile justice system. By sharing their stories publicly, these brave young adults are putting a human face on the challenges that many others with behavioral health conditions confront every day. They are giving young adults a reason to believe that, with the right services and supports, they can lead healthy, fulfilling lives.

The peer support movement has a life and a future far beyond Awareness Day. Youth, young adults, families, and communities across the country can be part of a larger conversation about peer support and help drive the momentum behind programs and initiatives that provide effective community-based programs and services for young adults.

Join the online conversation and make your voice heard by following @samhsagov on Twitter and using #HeroesofHope and #IGetSupportFrom.

See SAMHSA’s new short report, “Serious Mental Health Challenges among Older Adolescents and Young Adults” for more information.

By: Lisa Rubenstein, Government Project Officer, Caring for Every Child’s Mental Health Campaign, Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Armando Pina