One of the worst parts about struggling with mental illness is the loneliness. You feel like you’re the only person on the planet to suffer with these symptoms or stressors. You feel like you’re abnormal, inherently wrong, or “other.”
So, when someone truly listens to you, cares, and says “me, too,” it can be transformative.
People who have felt alone their entire lives can find connection and purpose, said Peter Starkey, executive director of the Monadnock Area Peer Support Agency (MPS) in Keene, New Hampshire.
MPS is one of 10 agencies of this type across the state. Staff was involved with the development of the long-range mental health plan.
Started in 1995, MPS is a consumer-run organization that practices Intentional Peer Support, a framework for building mutually beneficial relationships. Starkey noted that MPS isn’t about providing a service. It’s about “walking through the struggles that we all have.”
“It isn’t about, ‘how can I change you?’ It’s about ‘how can we together move toward something?’” Starkey said.
Peer support at MPS focuses on creating a learning environment, he said. It focuses on empathy: I’d like to understand what depression feels like for you.
“The biggest thing is that we try to lower the power dynamic. I may have a fancy title, and the staff may have fancy titles, but it’s a community we’re all a part of. Everyone has a say in how it’s run and governed,” Starkey said.
The staff includes “peer curators,” who “curate an environment, and facilitate a space of learning, growth, and understanding.”
MPS welcomes anyone who’s over 18-years-old and self-identifies with mental health struggles, Starkey said. “Individuals can stay here throughout the day and give or get support.” They have various community-building activities, such as community lunches, and take monthly trips throughout the state, Massachusetts, or Vermont, he said.
MPS has support groups for: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, hearing voices, identity, trauma, and survivors of suicide, along with a support group at the jail.
MPS also offers Peer Respite, a two-bed, week-long, non-clinical, non-medical alternative to hospitalization, said Jim McLaughlin, MA, the Peer Respite manager at MPS. “We don’t do intakes or assessments. We have a conversation with the person to find out what their hopes and needs are, and if it matches what we can provide for them.”
“Individuals have 24-hour, 7-days-a-week access to someone for support,” and all MPS offerings. They can continue going to school or work, and “come and go as they wish,” McLaughlin said.
Peer Respite has helped individuals experiencing anxiety, depression, and loneliness, waiting for entry into rehab, or after a hospital stay.
Moreover, MPS focuses on advocacy at the local, state, and federal level, and has an active role in community conversations around general health and wellness, Starkey said. They support members in advocating for what they want, he said.
Starkey believes that MPS effectively complements and supplements the mental health system. Individuals can practice the skills they’re learning in therapy within a community that supports them, he said.
And, MPS doesn’t “have the structure of, ‘I have an appointment right now, and it ends in 45 minutes.’ There is no insurance barrier, and no time limit.” Participation is free.
“Someone could come in at 9 a.m., have a 15-minute conversation, get some coffee, and get the support they need,” Starkey said. “We have some people here from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.” This is “supplementing what they’re not able to get in the clinical environment, and the community-at-large.”
“I always say the most basic way to describe peer support is to be a good person,” Starkey said. “We strive to be people who are willing to listen, be there, and not judge. For a lot of people, it’s the first time in their lives that they’ve experienced that.”