The Benefits of Peer Support in Residential Mental Health Treatment Programs

Peer support is an invaluable part of mental health treatment programs, providing benefits that go beyond individual therapy to create more powerful recovery experiences. By exploring the role of peer support in residential mental health treatment, you can come to understand exactly why it is such a vital component of the healing process and why it should be an important consideration when looking for the right treatment program.

Mental illness can be a lonely place. The emotional and behavioral disturbances inherent to mental health disorders can create both real and imagined barriers to healthy and positive social interactions, often separating you even from those who were once your closest allies. This isolation can be deeply damaging, pulling you further into distress and distancing you from the possibilities of healing.

And yet, many people considering residential mental health treatment are wary of being immersed in a community with a strong emphasis on peer-based social support. You may worry that you won’t fit in, that you’ll be judged, that you’ll be forced into the very social interactions your illness makes so difficult. Indeed, it is common to come to treatment with significant hesitations about participating in group therapies and living in a social environment during the course of care. But peer support in residential mental health treatment is an invaluable part of recovery—in fact, many find that it results in some of their most powerful therapeutic experiences.

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The Role of Peer Support in Residential Mental Health Treatment

Peer support in residential treatment programs comes in a variety of forms, from formal, structured group therapies to everyday interactions. You share living space, meals, and conversations. The benefits of this kind of peer support in residential mental health programs are multiple and interconnected and can result in profound transformation.

Breaking Isolation

The isolation and that so often accompanies mental illness can be profoundly painful, even if it is ostensibly self-imposed. But the implications of social alienation go even further than the immediate pain it so often brings. As noted in Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “Social connections not only give us pleasure, they also influence our long-term health every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking. Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.” For people with mental health disorders, research demonstrates that social supports significantly improve short and long-term treatment outcomes, improving self-efficacy, self-care skills, self-esteem, and overall quality of life.

Being surrounded by peers, both in the general residential setting and in group therapies, inherently fosters social interaction and connection, bringing you out of a state of isolation and into an array of social experiences. This can be deeply healing, nurturing a sense of belonging and camaraderie with others who understand what you are going through and share your struggles. Although many people may be initially reluctant to participate in group-based therapeutic practices and living environments, they often end up feeling a deep sense of relief emotionally, physically, and spiritually as they begin to form social connections.

Cutting Through Shame

The general stigma surrounding mental health disorders and the specific negative reactions you may have had to your own illness can result in feelings of deep shame that not only push you into isolation, but deeply damage your self-esteem and confidence. As Dr. Irvin Yalom, an expert on group psychotherapy, says, “Many patients enter [group] therapy with the disquieting thought that they are unique in their wretchedness, that they alone have certain frightening or unacceptable problems, thoughts, impulses, and fantasies.”

What peer support does is help you discover is that you are not alone; in fact, your thoughts, feelings, and experiences are shared to some degree with others who are navigating their own recovery processes. You do not have to feel humiliated or reluctant to reveal your true self because you are in the company of others who not only understand what you are going through, but share your struggles. The understanding, normalization, and validation that can then occur can cut through your shame and create a path toward self-acceptance. This feeling of being comfortable in your own skin is deeply healing and expands your ability to both love yourself and accept love from others.

Finding Self-Expression

Whether you’re experiencing frightening psychosis, living with the effects of trauma, or feel lost in the darkness of depression, mental illness can be disorienting in ways that make it difficult to understand what is happening to you, and even more difficult to express those experiences to other people. You may struggle to identify your feelings and thoughts and to understand your own behaviors, particularly in social settings. “Many people don’t know how they are feeling when they are interacting with other people, because it can be challenging to be self-connected when connecting with others,” explains Ali Miller, a psychotherapist specializing in group therapy. It can feel as if you do not have a language for communicating either with yourself or with others, particularly if you have suppressed your own feelings and needs out of shame and isolated yourself socially.

Peer-based support, whether in the context of group therapy or informal interactions, give you the opportunity to find your voice in a supportive environment. By observing how others express themselves and being encouraged to talk through your experiences, you can become more “aware of your own feelings and needs” and learn how to put them into words.

Practicing New Skills

Mental health disorders cause both emotional and behavioral disturbances that deeply affect how you relate to yourself and your environment. As such, true recovery is not simply an internal emotional phenomenon, but a process of building new skills that help you be with yourself and in the world in a healthier way. This includes learning to regulate your own emotions, disrupt negative thought patterns, cope with conflict, and participate in positive, meaningful interactions with others. As with any new learning, developing these skills requires practice in order to allow them to take root and foster integration. The safe, comfortable milieu supplied by your peers in residential treatment is an ideal setting for this practice.

The most obvious skills facilitated by peer-based interactions are social. “[Peer-based treatment] gives you the opportunity to practice re-engaging people,” says Ben Johnson, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the Warren Albert Medical School of Brown University. By re-engaging in a therapeutic context, you are able to receive immediate feedback regarding your behaviors, allowing you to gain greater insight into yourself and helping you develop better ways of interacting with others and yourself. “Hearing from other people about how you come across can be very powerful. You get a wider range of perspectives on your situation, and that can help you deal with your problems better.” At the same time, seeing how others are navigating their own learning can encourage you to push yourself harder to make real and lasting changes.

Some of the skills you practice will be general in nature—how to communicate your feelings to others, how to resolve disagreements, how to forge bonds with other people, how to understand and react to others in a reality-based way. Other skills, however, have a narrower focus. For Traci Barr, a 51-year-old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder, peer support helped her develop specific practices to prevent the onset of mania. “I learned very simple and very effective things—such as what boundaries are and not to allow things in my life that were not good for my manic side. [It was] very meaningful and healing.”

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Finding the Right Residential Treatment Environment

High-quality residential treatment programs incorporate peer support as an inherent part of their treatment curriculums in order to provide opportunities for all clients to experience its profound benefits. Small, intimate group environments tend to be best to nurture feelings of closeness and comfort and to ensure that each person is heard. As such, it’s important to pay attention to both program structure and size to determine if a program is right for you. With the correct balance of individual therapy, group therapies, and an overall environment that encourages positive, healing social interaction, you can create a solid foundation for ongoing wellness.

The insight and skills you gain through your peers can buoy you through your struggles and your celebrations. They can also create a template for how to develop and enjoy more meaningful relationships after your time in treatment. With the right kind and quality of peer support, you can go out into the world with deeper confidence and a renewed sense of self to create a more fulfilling future.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs, and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.