Do Peer Support Groups Work? Evidence & Effectiveness

Our research and optimism around virtual mental health peer support groups built for the unique needs of young adults.

Awareness

Today, 80% of young adults with mental health issues do not have access to care. Furthermore, COVID has caused the highest increases in mental health issues for young adults (over 3x amounts in depression and anxiety). Frustrated by our personal experiences with the mental health system, Vik, Chris, and I left our jobs and graduate programs and set out to find a solution built for the unique needs of young adults (I wrote about my story with shimmer and leaving medical school in a previous post for those curious).

The Problem

Over the past six months, our team went through the Lean Launchpad and NSF I-Corps to conduct 327 interviews (and counting) with young adults, physicians, therapists, employers, insurers, peer facilitators, and other startups to identify a true need that young adults with mental health issues have right now.

There are two primary reasons why online mental health peer-support groups are desperately needed: 1) currently there is a nation-wide shortage of therapists, and accessing one-on-one therapy is an expensive, arduous process; and 2) healthcare as a whole is moving towards preventative care, and part of that process will be shifting mental healthcare away from one-on-one therapy towards more affordable and accessible peer support groups. 

Nationwide, there is a shortage of licensed therapists: there are only 100,000 therapists trying to meet the demand of 51.5 million Americans with mental health issues. This shortage has led to further issues accessing care. we discovered three consistently unaddressed problems with teletherapy (the most common solution used for young adults): affordability ($150/session, 25-day wait times), cultural competency (therapists are 46 y.o. on average and 80% are white), and retention (50% first-visit drop off rates).

More broadly, looking towards the future, healthcare is moving towards value-based preventive care, addressing mental health issues before they become severe. In recent years, much scientific literature has demonstrated that peer support groups should be an essential, cost-effective part of the mental health journey prior to individual therapy. 

Why shimmer?

Shimmer helps address these issues in one fell swoop. Unlike therapists, there are a surplus of peer coaches available to meet demand, and due to both their affordability and the support group nature of shimmer we are able to drastically reduce the cost per user. Further, we are able to hire coaches from diverse backgrounds to meet the needs and cultural competencies of our members. This way, we can give our members affordable support groups with people who really get you.

Additionally, we believe that this is unique timing to work on virtual peer support communities for the following reasons:

  • Rapidly growing problem: Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the prevalence of depression and anxiety has increased threefold. For young adults from under-represented backgrounds this ratio is much higher, and 79% don’t receive adequate care.
  • Change in the way we use technology: People of all ages are more willing to interact online, especially with healthcare services. We believe this is an opportunity to change the way people interact with mental health services.
  • Change in legislation: Last October, bill SB-803 was signed setting up peer support care reimbursement by Medi-Cal by 2022, joining 30 other states.

As we build Shimmer, part of our hopes are to redefine the mental health narrative to include social determinants, healthy relationships, and educational resources, all in addition to therapy. With a supportive community as the home base, we hope to continue to improve and expand our services.

Since this is a newer model of care, I will share some of the benefits and research behind peer support we’ve found so far!

For now, we fit in levels 3 to 5 of the stepped care model
For now, we fit in levels 3 to 5 of the stepped care model

The benefits of peer support groups

Feel less lonely

Mental health is a widely stigmatized topic. Sharing your experiences with people who have similar issues can be quite liberating. 

Instead of internalizing every emotion you develop, support groups provide a unique space where it is the norm to share experiences with your peers, which we’ve seen has been really helpful especially during the pandemic.

Learn new coping mechanisms

Perhaps the best part about peer support groups is the fact that you can listen to other people with similar problems and learn from their experiences.

For instance, if you’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), your peers might provide you with useful tips to ground yourself or avoid triggers.

Stay motivated and accountable

Dealing with mental health issues is very challenging, and especially when you’re doing it alone. For this reason, peer support groups serve as a great way to keep you motivated by having others who can help you set goals and stay motivated.

Learn more about your condition

Not having enough information about the different aspects of your mental health is an extremely common problem people have. The obscurity, fear, and lack of educational resources may exacerbate your symptoms or worsen your prognosis.

Organizing regular meetings with groupmates can help you gather more information to understand and address your condition.

Getting feedback from your peers

When trying to approach a mental health disorder, you will most likely encounter numerous methods and techniques that promise a quick resolution.

Instead of trying everything that comes your way, you could benefit from hearing feedback from your peers who understand your unique mental health journey.

The evidence for peer support groups

For a deeper understanding of the evidence, I highly recommend giving this review of literature by Mental Health America a read. Below I highlight some of the big takeaways from their work.

Individual-level evidence:

  • increase quality of life outcomes (i.e. increases in employment, reduction in symptoms)
  • increased trust, engagement & retention in the mental health care system
  • increased whole health (meeting goals, increased hopefulness, life satisfaction, more meaningful relationships)
  • decrease in substance use

Systems-level evidence:

  • 70-90% fewer inpatient days
  • 50-70% lower re-hospitalization rates
  • Lowered overall cost of mental health services, some reporting ROI of 2.28.
  • cost-effective and essential form of preventative care as part of a stepped care model (Firth et al., Yan et al, Ho et al)


Takeaway message 

The shimmer team has spent much time listening to the problems of our fellow peers, and we really believe that the existing offerings in the space don’t solve the core issues of loneliness and having a support system of people who understand our unique problems. With our matched support groups and people-facilitated community, we are hopeful we can really help other young adults in need. 

If you or a loved one think you could benefit from our services, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at jon@shimmer.care. Even if you’re remotely interested, we’d love to hear your story and see how we can help.


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Shimmer is the online, affordable, and accessible gateway for young adults to begin their wellness journey. Join our newsletter or facebook group for exclusive free content and live events! If you're interested in writing for us, email jon@shimmer.care.


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