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December 01, 2011

Peer Counseling Aids Mental Illness Recovery

Non-pharmaceutical treatment has been used for 50 years

In a courtyard outside the local library in Kent County, Maryland, five men and women gather around a table to talk.

“I like it here," John says. "You meet a lot of people. And not only that, the same people have the same problem, some worse than others. I come here to be around people, to meet people.”

“Since I found this group, I don’t feel so isolated," says Victoria. "I don’t feel so insulated.”

John and Victoria - who are only using first names to protect their privacy - are members of a support group run by Chesapeake Voyagers.

The mental health, wellness and recovery center works to help people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks and other disorders that can alter thought, mood or behavior.

One in five adults in America suffers from some form of mental illness, according to a recent survey. Although help is available, most never seek it - perhaps because of a lack of understanding about the illness or the dread of stigma.

But the repercussions of untreated mental illness - job loss, family disruption, isolation, homelessness and hopelessness - can be devastating. Over the past four decades, researchers have developed powerful new medications to ease symptoms, but peer counseling - a non-pharmaceutical treatment that has been used effectively for half a century - is still an important part of therapy.

“The first day that I came to meet with Chesapeake Voyagers was a huge task for me to open the door," says Rebecca. "I wanted to run away so quick and cry, but yet, I knew I had to do that if I was going to get better.”

The 47 year old has battled depression since childhood, though she says it wasn't diagnosed until recently. For Rebecca, isolation is a huge problem.

“I had two attempts at suicide. I think that when you’re in this valley of darkness where you can’t pull yourself together enough to even do the basic needs - showering, your personal hygiene - it’s a real struggle to try and feel like you’re worthwhile, that you have a place in society," she says. "You don’t feel like you’re socially fit to go into crowds, go to stores. You don’t feel like you can make meals. Depression takes away your character. So you have nothing to fall back on.”

Support groups - like those run by Chesapeake Voyagers - offer something to fall back on:  a community of people facing similar issues. And, as more people bear their soul to the world on reality television programs, it could lead more people like Rebecca, John and Victoria to feel comfortable talking to others about what they’re going through.

Peer support counselors - many of whom have experienced and successfully dealt with mental health problems themselves - lead the groups.

Counselor Audrey D’Allaird is bipolar and says she couldn't find a job until she discovered Chesapeake Voyagers.

"Essentially, with bipolar you have extreme highs and extreme lows, and I could get a job so quickly, but I could lose it just as fast. I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand it was mental illness."

D’Allaird leads support groups dealing with depression, and the effects of emotional and physical abuse. Another of her groups focuses on drug and alcohol addiction - conditions that research shows are closely tied to mental disorders.

In addition to support groups, Chesapeake Voyagers hosts social events like evenings out for dinner, bowling or going to the movies. The center also offers access to computers for finding jobs and housing, as well as information on other mental health resources.

Similar services are available in communities around the country and, increasingly, in virtual communities through websites and Internet bulletin boards.