On Peer Support Work and its Effectiveness in Rural Communities

Rural communities are a unique context for mental healthcare. In rural and agricultural communities across North America, there is a mental health crisis due to the lack of resources that exist, and stigma discourages people from getting help. Rural communities experience higher rates of suicide, addiction, and substance use. Rural residents are more likely to live in poverty, report poor health, lack health insurance, have a chronic health condition, and/or be unemployed. It is much more difficult for rural residents to access mental health services compared to those living in urban areas, as it often requires travelling long distances and there are far fewer psychologists and psychiatrists. Where services do exist, they are frequently stretched thin, with long wait lists and high turnover rates (meaning the therapists change often). Moreover, individuals in rural communities tend to value self-reliance, which can discourage seeking help. The unique circumstances of mental health in rural contexts requires mental health services and solutions that are uniquely suited to those circumstances.

What is peer support?

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), “peer support is a supportive relationship between people who have lived experience in common”. In other words, peer support for mental health involves people who have experienced mental health challenges supporting someone currently experiencing mental health challenges. Peer support can take place in groups or one-on-one. It can be used on its own, or alongside more traditional counselling and/or psychiatric services. Peer support itself exists on a spectrum, ranging from more formalised peer support services that take place in a structured setting, all the way to community members offering each other support and talking about each other’s shared experiences in a much more casual format.

Does it work?

Both academic research and the reports of those that have experienced peer support indicate that peer support is highly effective. As well as benefiting the individuals who turn to peer support for help, peer support programs can also benefit their communities on the whole and reduce the load on the conventional mental health system. According to the MHCC’s 2016 report on peer support programs, studies have suggested that those using peer support programs “had a decrease in use of hospital services and experienced improvements in their psychiatric symptoms, social networks, quality of life, self esteem, and social functioning”. These promising reports have led the MHCC to advocate in favor of peer support programs as part of improving Canada’s mental healthcare systems.

Why is peer support suited to rural contexts?

Given the unique problems related to mental health faced by rural communities, peer support is perfect for improving mental health outcomes in rural areas. Peer support reduces feelings of isolation and strengthens communities by bringing those with similar experiences together. For those worried about the stigma that can be associated with seeking traditional mental healthcare like counselling or psychiatry, peer support can be a less intimidating option. And, while everyone in rural communities should have access to the mental health programs they need, while access to mental healthcare remains limited in rural areas, peer support can help to fill the gaps and take some pressure off other parts of the mental health system.

Peer support is a highly effective form of mental health support that is uniquely suited to addressing the mental health needs of rural communities. Here at Stigma-Free Society, we offer peer support worker training for rural and agricultural communities in partnership with Robyn Priest LIVE YOUR TRUTH.

Join us and see how peer support can improve mental health outcomes in our communities.