When anyone goes through a tough time, their first instinct is often to seek advice and help from someone who has gone through the same thing. This kind of help is sometimes called peer support. In the mental health field, peer support specialists, also called peer navigators, or “PNs.” For teens, these are adolescents with a self-identified history of mental illness and who work with other teens with mental health concerns by them offering encouragement, resources, education, and reassurance.
A PN is someone who has made progress with their own recovery. They hold multiple responsibilities with clients.PNs use a variety of approaches to help their clients:
- Engagement. A PN always strives to engage the client actively in the recovery process. A PN knows that finding out what they and the client have in common can make the client feel more connected and comfortable with sharing information and experiences. Therefore, a PN always thinks of engaging with the client as the initial step in building a relationship with the client.
- Empathy. A PN is genuinely concerned with what the client is experiencing and feeling. They work to draw out the clients’ life-stories and feelings, and they acknowledge and validate these experiences. A PN reassures clients that they understand the client’s feelings and that they will try their best to support the client as they pursue recovery.
- Strategy. A PN helps the client create concrete plans to identify resources and practices to negotiate day-to-day challenges. Examples of plans are stress-management routines, to practical life advice: anything that makes the client feel better.
- Empowerment. A PN puts a lot of effort into empowering the client. A PN believes that empowerment helps strengthen clients’ faith in themselves, increases clients’ self-confidence, and gives them hope for a healthy future.
- Natural Supports. A PN helps clients to identify their natural support systems and to take steps to actually use them. Natural supports consist of important people in clients’ lives and activities that allow clients to relax and gain strength. These activities could include video games, art, dance, books, and even particular places. By helping the client design and use this system, the PN aims to create a safe space in their lives where clients can work to understand their feelings and reduce their inward stress.
- Hope: The ability to sustain hope can help people put their plans into action and set them up for success. It is a driving factor that motivates people in their recovery. In sharing their own recovery stories, PNs are in a position to demonstrate to clients that they can indeed hope—that feeling better is a real, achievable option. Clients come to understand that they are capable of accomplishing the same kinds of success.
Research has found that peer support works! It shows that working with PNs helps people gain hope, independence and self-confidence.
When you’re a teen struggling with a mental health difficulty, seeing recovery personified in one of your peers is inspiring in and of itself—but imagine having that peer alongside you during a difficult time, teaching you self-soothing exercises, helping you identify and access your most reliable supports, and just giving you hope that you can come through the situation not just surviving, but thriving.
We recently learned from peer support specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) that their mental health clinicians are starting to see more and more benefits for clients who are working with PNs. Evidence like this is motivating more Pittsburgh-area hospitals and mental health agencies to start offering more peer support services.
Do you want to receive peer support services as a client? Start by asking your doctor, therapist, or social worker for more information about PNs in their network. If you’re in Pittsburgh, you can talk to a PN immediately by calling UPMC’s WarmLine—it’s free and confidential.
Want to become a PN yourself and support those with similar mental health experiences? Click here to check out the mandatory requirements and trainings to become certified in Pennsylvania.
Keep in mind: while helping others is great, your own health and well-being needs to be your first priority!
Have you ever had an experience with a PN? What do you think of the idea of one experienced, trained adolescent helping another in need? Please share your experiences in the comment section below.