Struggling to cope? An online 'mental health peer' can lend support

If you're going through a difficult time, help may only be a few Facebook clicks away.
by Nicole Spector /
Image: Woman using phone
Sometimes, mental health peers can be found online, where you’re not limited by travel or inhibited by the possibility of being judged by someone in your real-life community.eclipse_images / Getty Images
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When Harmony Hobbs, a 38-year-old freelance writer living in Baton Rouge, embarked on sobriety she was going to AA meetings and in therapy, but some of her best support she found in an unexpected place: the internet.

“When I started trying to get sober, someone I know in recovery invited me to a women’s only Facebook group for others struggling with sobriety,” says Hobbs, who recently achieved 18 months clean. “It has been so valuable as resource for me. As a parent of three, I can't always drop what I am doing and go to an AA meeting. It’s hard enough just to make it to therapy. With these women, I can be sitting in the kitchen, have a moment where I think about walking to the store to get vodka, and just hop on there and say I’m struggling, and they’re there.”

Hobbs recounts one particularly powerful moment, when, knowing she had to dispose of her son’s Adderall when he no longer needed it, she couldn’t bring herself to do it alone. “No one was available to come over and be with me, so I went into the Facebook group and said, ‘I want you to watch me dump these pills,’ and I did it live. That held me accountable. I really think that might have saved me from myself.”

A mental health peer is not a therapist

Such is the beauty of having a ‘mental health peer,’ which Seneca Williams, a licensed mental health counselor defines as “an accountability partner that has recovered from or is successfully managing their symptoms of mental health to support you through your mental health condition.”

“A mental health peer is not licensed or credentialed provider of mental health treatment,” Williams clarifies, and it’s important to note that such a person can’t replace a mental health professional. Instead, a mental health peer (or group of peers) is an additional resource for coping. Sometimes they can help in ways that therapists can’t.”

“A key benefit to a peer is that [they will] speak honestly about their personal experience,” says Monica Elden, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in integrative psychotherapy, coaching and training. “A therapist will not reveal or share as much personally the way a peer can.”

A mental health peer is different than a regular friend

A mental health peer may wind up becoming a good friend, as has been the case for Hobbs, but you’ll likely never call this person your best friend, and that’s a good thing. Ideally, a mental health peer is more like an objective but empathetic confidante who has gone through the same types of mental health challenges that you’re presently navigating and can talk with you from a place of personal wisdom. A mental health peer does not coddle or indulge you, just as they don’t judge or dismiss you. And they certainly don’t enable you.

What is productive to healing, is feeling understood by another who knows what it’s like to be in your shoes.

“A regular friend can be supportive, listen and empathize, but they may also enable unhealthy patterns that don’t make your mental health better," says Williams. "[They can] be supportive but cannot give you useful feedback from their experience managing that mental health issue, because they have not had to deal with it and their perspective is different. They can sympathize or empathize, but their inability to completely grasp what you are feeling, can make you feel more isolated, which is very counterproductive to healing.”

What is productive to healing, is feeling understood by another who knows what it’s like to be in your shoes.

“For me personally, there is a tremendous amount of value in bonding with someone over having moved forward from that trauma or illness,” says Delton Russell, member engagement specialist at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions. “Who better to understand and support me than someone that’s been there? Think of it as if you have lived in a particular region your whole life and then you move to a foreign country and while living there you meet someone that grew up the next town over from you and understands your dialect and shares the same love you have for a local restaurant. It doesn’t mean that your [other] friends are any less to you, but you’ll likely have some kind of bond with the person that comes from the same area as you.”

Having a screen between you can be not as scarily intimate and it can enable to you be more honest.

Online support groups can be your best bet

To find a mental health peer, you should check out support groups dedicated to your mental health issue(s). Sometimes, this is most effectively done online, where you’re not limited by travel or inhibited by the possibility of being judged by someone in your real-life community.

“With social media more people have access to the support that may not be available in rural areas and small towns where there is a strong presence of mental health stigma and lack of resources," says Williams. "Online support groups can definitely be an advantage in finding a community of people dealing with the same issues you, [who] will not be deterred by mental health stigma. Online support alone, like private FB groups can prevent a mental health crisis, the need for emergency care, improvement in quality of life and emotional wellness."

Margaret Laws, CEO of Hopelab, which recently conducted a survey finding that many teens and young adults use social media to help cope with depression, adds that in some cases, “having a screen between you can be not as scarily intimate and it can enable to you be more honest.”

Even mental health professionals turn to online groups for their own support needs.

“I'm a therapist and I've also been in treatment for [major depressive disorder] for four years,” says Crystal Shelton, MSSW, LCSW and VP of clinical programs at Cohen Veterans Network. “Finding other mental health professionals who are also working through their own challenges in my local community would be incredibly challenging, but with online communities, I can find support groups and message boards with access to very specific and helpful discussions around balancing things like self-care and when (if ever) to disclose status in a treatment session.”

How to get started online and what red flags to look out for

Here’s how to get started finding a mental health peer, and what to look out for in terms of red flags.

  • Do a keyword search. Hobbs recommends searching for the “keyword” around your problem or illness on Facebook, request to join a few closed groups, and once in, observe the behavior of its members before participating in a post or reaching out. In addition to Facebook, Williams recommends searching WhatsApp chats and Meetup groups.
  • Beware the emotional vampire. Be careful with people “who seem to use you to feed into their mental health dilemma, in a toxic or unproductive way, dumping their emotions or projecting their emotions on you,” says Williams.
  • Avoid fixers. Williams discourages interacting with “people who appear to be ‘treating’ your mental health; only a licensed clinician can do this. They cannot diagnose you or tell you what to do for a particular diagnosis. They cannot give you advice on what substances or medications you should or should not take.”
  • Set clear boundaries and expectations. “[Mental heath peers] are there to share their mental health experiences, tips, advice. They are there to listen and support, not fix or solve your problem. They are not required to always be available, they are voluntarily supporting. Set times to speak, and only share as much as you feel comfortable sharing.”
  • Be open to the process. “The truth is most people in online supports groups are just like you: wanting connection, to feel heard, accepted and supported,” says Williams. “With a mental health peer, you can finally feel like you have a partner joining you, on a difficult journey to recovery and managing your mental health. It is a mutually beneficial partnership with someone who understands your language and wants to grow with you.”

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