See Yourself Like a Friend, Not an Enemy: How Peer Support Groups Work
by Kat Chen, MHASF Peer Connections Manager
June 30, 2021
As a facilitator for the Managing Anxiety Support Group at MHASF, one subject that comes up repeatedly is how hard we are on ourselves. Worry and anxiety are often fueled by one’s inner critic and negative self-talk. In group support sessions, sharing these experiences can lead to feelings of relief from loneliness. Giving a voice to what plagues individuals privately deflates the silent power of many forms of anxiety.
I’m often thinking about how hard participants are on themselves. Would they ever be this hard on a friend? The answer is always no. I hope that by presenting more positive narratives over extended periods of time participants might carve out less judgmental opinions of themselves. I want to believe that those of us in mental health recovery who work hard to show up and to be vulnerable in the presence of each other will break through to the “other side”, not just surviving but thriving; not view ourselves as broken and inferior but as worthy contributors to this world.
I see evidence of recovery all around the agency—in peers who are thriving today—by way of staying present. Just as we let loose our imaginations to craft new narratives for our identities, we also consider meta-narratives for mental health care. I think of the old paradigm of top-down hierarchical treatment—doctors fixing the broken, or clinicians holding diagnoses over their patients—and how the medical model ignores the need for self-empowerment among those struggling with mental health challenges.
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In peer support groups, we help each other. I, as a group facilitator, get as much out of going as our participants do. We support one another by witnessing each other’s pains, challenges, victories, and baby steps toward recovery. As difficult as it may be to reach out for social support, supportive relationships are the key to unlocking solutions to managing distress. Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety often have a self-isolating component to them, and as they say, isolation is a killer. I’m blessed to find myself in a healthier, more sustainable chapter of my life, but even now I find myself no more, no less, than those struggling with their mental health right now. We are all at different points in our journeys, and we will all alternate between struggle and relief.
I carry sharp memories of hopelessness and stuckness, the feelings of incapacity and paralysis—self-recrimination, and endlessly anxious thought loops. I won’t ever forget the chapter of my life when I could barely work a part-time job or afford an apartment. The problem is that no personal ailment is entirely separated from socio-economic ailments—most of the participants I’ve worked with have expressed housing, employment, and/or financial insecurity. Those things aren’t in and of themselves a direct cause of mental ailments, but they do not help. Stress of that kind will trigger and exacerbate symptoms.
Part of peer work involves disclosing our own challenges to those we counsel, and we try to choose moments when it feels possible to introduce a new narrative into others’ minds—the story of emergence from the lowest points in life—because we are living proof of that. Peers model hope and recovery to show that we are all capable and deserving of less distress and better days in our lives. Part of my work is encouraging patience and faith and gentleness towards oneself while walking the recovery path, never forgetting that reaching out for support is a good first step.