Peer Support – part 2 – History

The intent of this second post is to illustrate that the concept of peer support is not new, and has a long and impressive history, which has included support from sources including SAMHSA and the U.S. Surgeon General, among others. This is not meant to be an exhaustive review of the history, but to provide a solid reference point.

Highlights from the History of Peer Support


Suicide Attempt Survivors in Suicide Prevention
As noted in The Way Forward, attempt survivor support groups were successfully started in clinical and college settings with published reports dating back to 1968.
Suicide Anonymous, a mutual help group for people who have experienced suicidal thoughts starts in Tennessee (1996).
Organization for Attempters and Survivors of Suicide in Interfaith Services (OASSIS) and the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA (SPAN USA) sponsor the first “National Conference for Survivors of Suicide Attempts, their Friends and their Families” (2005).
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline starts the Consumer Survivor Subcommittee, bringing together attempt survivors, loss survivors, and crisis center representatives to assist with national projects. (2005)
SPRC Discussion Series features D. Lezine on incorporating the voice of suicide attempt survivors in state and local suicide prevention efforts (2006)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline sponsors attempt survivor summit meeting for “service and outreach strategies” (2007)
SAMHSA Suicide Prevention Dialogue with Consumers and Survivors: From pain to promise (2007)
Suicide Attempt Survivor Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (2011) – released The Way Forward (2014)
Suicide Attempt Survivor Task Force met with the Zero Suicide Workgroup at a Summit Meeting to discuss joint efforts to promote better clinical care (2014)
American Association of Suicidology (AAS) creates new Attempt Survivor & Lived Experience Division

While The Way Forward is a long document/resource, a lot of information was excluded. For example, I had to write that “attempt survivor peer support is building on a long history of support by people with lived experience in mental and behavioral health.” Which really doesn’t do justice to what I was referring to. Here, however, I can present some additional information.

General Mental Health Peer Support
The concept of peer support may begin with the “Wounded Healers” who provided counseling based partially on personal experience:

  • The shamans often had the experience of serious illness as an early stage in the process of becoming a community healer.
  • Cicero (106-43 BC) used his grief at the loss of his daughter to help console others.
  • Petrarca (1304-1374) practiced self-care for his melancholy and used his writings to help others.
  • Fox (1624-1691), who founded the Quakers, struggled with “despair,” “great misery,” “great sorrow and troubles.” During his ministry he often visited the sick and used sympathy and encouragement to help others.
  • Freud (1856-1939) experienced depressive moods and he would “lose all capacity for enjoyment.” After his father died, he began his self-analysis which led to many of his most famous writings in psychoanalysis.
  • Jung (1875-1961) wrote about his “state of disorientation,” “inner pressure,” and “psychic disturbance.” His self-analysis during that period led to many of the crucial concepts in his analytical psychology.
Peer help groups, where individuals provide mutual support and aid to each other, probably started with Alcoholics Anonymous (1938).
Peer help groups for people with mental illness started later, and early groups included Schizophrenics Anonymous, The National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (now called the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance; DBSA), GROW, and Recovery, Inc. (1950s). (see Salzer, 2002).
SAMHSA developed the Community Support Program (CSP) to help states move from institutions to community services and also provide support for the new consumer movement (1977). Through the 1980s the CSP continued to provide resources, technical assistance, and information on peer help and self help(see Campbell & Leaver, 2003)
CSP sponsored the first national conference for people with mental illness, entitled Alternatives, with a focus on peer support and self-help (1985). The conference continues and will be held in about a week and a half in Orlando, FL.
SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) sponsored 14 service demonstration projects to implement and evaluate various “peer support services including drop-in centers, outreach programs, businesses, employment and housing programs, and crisis services” (1988-1991).
The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) released a position paper that “recognizes that former mental patients/mental health consumers have a unique contribution to make to the improvement of the quality of mental health services in many areas of the service delivery system” (1989).
National Mental Health Consumer Self-Help Clearinghouse funded by CSP to help consumers form peer support groups, organize coalitions, advocate for mental health reform, and fight stigma through a library of publications and materials (1992).
National Empowerment Center funded by CSP to provide information on treatment, recovery, peer support groups, legal services, and other topics (1992).
Consumer Organization and Networking Technical Assistance Center (CONTAC) funded by CSP to provide technical assistance about peer support groups, consumer-run programs, and community support systems (1998).
Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General recognizes roles for peer help as an “adjunct to formal treatment” (1999).
NASMHPD released Emerging New Practices in Organized Peer Support under a contract with SAMHSA to “provide an overview of peer support services in the United States in order to guide and promote understanding and integration of peer-run support within the continuum of community mental healthcare” (2003). (see Campbell & Leaver, 2003)