Youth mental health is one of the most significant challenges we face today. Around the world, one in seven young people aged 10-19 live with a mental disorder such as anxiety or depression, and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for youth aged 15-19. Existing school and community mental health support and services are struggling to keep up with the growing demand exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. So, could peer mental health programs be the answer?

Peer mental health programs could bridge the access gap for youth, providing resources that supplement and support existing services so that more young people can access the help they need. But these programs are not without downsides, and experts are divided on their effectiveness and role in the broader mental health system.

What is a Peer Mental Health Program?

In a peer mental health program, trained young people listen and provide guidance to other young people. This can take the form of a hotline like Seattle’s Teen Link, where young people can call, text, or chat online with a trained teen volunteer.

In other cases, peer mental health programs can involve youth from a particular school looking out for struggling students and helping them connect with resources. Yet others connect students in pairs or small mentorship groups to help with specific issues, such as school attendance or recovery from substance misuse.

What are the Pros and Cons of Peer Mental Health Programs?

Peer mental health programs can offer early intervention in schools and communities where professional mental health resources are insufficient. They can be especially effective in reaching youth who lack a trusted adult to reach out to. But these programs are no replacement for trained, licensed professionals, and come with both benefits and drawbacks.

Benefits of Peer Mental Health Programs

Peer mental health programs can:

  • Offer opportunities for early intervention — peers can often identify struggling students before adults notice the warning signs of mental health problems.
  • Provide broader access — due to the lower cost of these programs, it’s possible to offer more help to more young people than current services provide. Young people without a trusted adult in their life or those who simply feel more comfortable opening up to someone their own age can also more readily access these services.
  • Break down stigma — putting young people at the helm of mental health services helps to break down the stigma of accessing them.
  • Empower young people — these student-led services empower young people to address the mental health challenges facing their generation. The more young people are involved in mental health services directed at people their age, the more relevant and valuable those services will be.  

Disadvantages of Peer Mental Health Programs

Of course, peer mental health programs cannot replace services provided by licensed mental health experts. Despite the advantages, there are several key disadvantages as well:

  • Data is limited — there isn’t enough research yet to determine the effectiveness of peer mental health programs.
  • Volunteers need support too — being a peer volunteer can take its toll, and young people need support coping with not being able to solve every problem. Unlike trained professionals, young people need more support to process the things they deal with while volunteering.
  • Matching peers can be challenging — with every peer mentorship, there’s a chance of putting two people together who don’t feel comfortable with each other. Unlike organic social networks, creating these pairings can result in mismatches that ultimately stall rather than aid recovery.

The Value of Peer Support in Recovery

Ultimately, more research is needed to determine the effectiveness and value of peer mental health programs, but they do offer a potential solution to the growing access gap in youth mental health services.

What we do know for sure is the importance of community in youth mental health and recovery. That’s why at Ethos Sober Living Residence, community is our method. Our all-male community is designed to foster long-term sobriety by creating a supportive environment in which everyone participates in each other’s recovery. We operate like a family unit, with house dinners, on-site mentors, outings, and weekly unity meetings to cultivate camaraderie, accountability, and brotherhood.

If you or a loved one are looking for a safe, supportive sober living community for young men, Ethos Recovery can help.

Contact us today to find out how we use community to support your recovery journey.