Peer support: Shared experience in suicide prevention
Peer support specialists — those individuals with lived experience of mental illness and/or substance use disorder (SUD) — have been well-established in behavioral health interventions. Their shared experience provides the credibility and understanding that help individuals with mental health and SUD challenges on their road to recovery. While more research needs to be done, studies indicate that peers make a difference by increasing self-esteem, improving engagement in care, decreasing substance use and more.
However, what is the role of peers in suicide prevention, especially those people who have attempted suicide and survived, and what does the future look like for their involvement? Peers are increasingly becoming part of suicide prevention strategies, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). Indeed, the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention includes the use of peers to support those people at risk for suicide.
The power of advocacy
Who other than peers are better advocates for people at risk of suicide? Peers have personal experience. They have faced a life-and-death decision and survived it. Their shared story is their credibility. (For more on the power of storytelling, read last week’s Beacon Lens.) All of this culminates in their ability to persuade — to motivate individuals thinking of suicide that life is indeed worth living.
What is the role of peers in suicide prevention, especially those people who have attempted suicide and survived, and what does the future look like for their involvement?
Peers’ role in suicide prevention has a large presence in crisis services. Becoming more and more integral to crisis systems, their roles include, but are not limited to:
- Crisis Intervention Team members
- Warm line associates
- Assertive Community Treatment team members
- Mental Health First Aid instructors
- Crisis respite center managers
Peer-run crisis respites are a good example of the grassroots role that peers can have for people experiencing a mental health crisis. They are a residential crisis service — run by trained peers — that provide community-based, non-clinical support. These respites provide a safe place for people to get through a mental health crisis, and stays tend to be short-term — just long enough to get through the crisis. Currently, 13 states have peer-run crisis respites, according to the National Empowerment Center.
Research shows these respites are effective. One study found that, over a period of 12 months, those individuals who used these centers had 2.9 fewer hospitalizations than those who didn’t, resulting in an average savings of $2,138 per Medicaid-enrolled month in Medicaid expenditures.
Peers can provide a new level of support
While peers are well-established in suicide prevention, that support is mostly from the family and friends of people who have died by suicide — not by those who have had suicidal crises themselves, including attempts — according to the SPRC. The involvement of suicide attempt survivors is not as organized as that of people who have lost loved ones to suicide.
That dynamic is beginning to change, says the SPRC. Forums for suicide attempt survivors are emerging. One example is Connections, described as “peer support for suicide attempt survivors and those with suicidal thoughts”. It is an online directory where people having thoughts of suicide can connect with others who have experienced and continue to recover from similar thoughts. Not mental health professionals, the peer support volunteers listen and share their own stories of recovery.
While peers are well-established in suicide prevention, that support is mostly from the family and friends of people who have died by suicide — not by those who have had suicidal crises themselves, including attempts.
Live Through This is another example of a forum involving suicide attempt survivors. Drawing from the power of storytelling, this forum is “a collection of portraits and true stories of suicide attempt survivors across the United States”. With the click of a mouse, people can read stories that compare to their own, and if willing, share their own story. Essentially, it is an online community of advocacy through storytelling.
As we end September as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Beacon Health Options calls upon all of us to tap into the power of storytelling — whatever one’s story may be. Peers are the testament to that power as they share their most raw moments to help others. The proof of their effectiveness is in the 280 people who move beyond suicide for every person who dies by it.
If you or a loved one is in a crisis and need help immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or got to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-someone-else online. These services are confidential, free and available to all.