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An Inside Look at NAMI's Peer-to-Peer Education Program

by Sarah O'Brien, Director, NAMI Peer-to-Peer Program


February 2010 will see the launch of the new edition of Peer-to-Peer, a free, 10-week, peer-led, recovery education course open to any person who lives with serious mental illness. The new version of Peer-to-Peer is highly interactive, informative and includes additional take-home materials for participants. Peer-to- Peer emphasizes recovery from mental illness as a feasible, supportable goal and challenges the stigma often wrongly associated with mental illness and is currently available through many NAMI affiliates. Learn more about Peer-to-Peer at Now, let's look at how this life-changing course impacts the people who participate.

It is a rainy evening in Montgomery County, Md., and a new Peer-to-Peer class will soon be starting. I am one of two peer mentors sitting in the greeting area of our local NAMI office waiting for participants to arrive.

Suddenly the phone rings. Jan, one of the peers preparing to take the course, has called to cancel. Jan has agoraphobia and never leaves her house alone, and she just found out that her ride fell through. We express our regrets that she won't be able to attend, and remove her name from the roster. Ten minutes later the phone rings again-it's Jan. She hasn't been out of her house alone for more than three years, but even so, she tells us she has decided to call a cab so that she can attend. It is in this moment that I realize again the impact that this course can have on individuals who, like me, manage a mental illness daily. Within 20 minutes Jan has arrived. She has a smile on her face.

On week two of the course, on another rainy night, 11 students attend the class and Jan is among them. When asked why she came back, Jan said, "I want skills to deal with my mental health and the skills to help other people."

When asked what she likes about the class, she replied, "I like the structure of the course, how we all sit in a circle. I also like that the mentors are peers; no one is talking down to anyone else. One exercise I really appreciated was when we rated the trauma caused by mental illness in our life on a scale of one to 10. It was surprising to me to see there were other 10s out there, that I wasn't the only one."

In another part of Maryland, a Peer-to-Peer course is nearing completion. "Every time I teach the course, it reinforces my own recovery," says Denise of NAMI Baltimore. "It is also great to see how the information affects the participants. If I had this kind of information back in the '80s, I might not have lost so much of my life due to my illness. I might not have been on disability for 12 years; I might not have lost my career as an engineer."

Denise is animated as she talks about how her peers are growing by taking the course. "There is a young woman in our class that wasn't really participating. Last night for the first time she volunteered to read. Both my co-mentor and I thought that was a breakthrough for her."

Deb, Denice's co-mentor agrees. "She seemed more confident in herself. She had that demeanor about her that said 'I can do this.' She normally sits by herself, and last night she sat with the class."

"Peer-to-Peer is an important course because it really does give people living with mental illness the information they don't get when they are first diagnosed," Denise adds. "It allows them to see other peers succeeding, and it also allows them to be with a group of people that are going through the same things they are. The information on brain chemistry is extremely important. I have heard from the participants that it helps them understand this really is an illness, not a defect of character or their fault in some way."

Monique, one of the course participants, agrees with Denise. "Learning about the brain made me realize that there is a biological component to mental illness, that it isn't just me that ran my life off the railroad tracks on my own. I hadn't been shown that before, and it relieves some of the guilt I have experienced." Monique also appreciates that the class is free and peer-led. "The peers are well-trained and well-prepared," she said. "Everyone is friendly and that keeps me coming back too." As for the course structure, Monique says that she benefits from the fact that there is a definite beginning and end to the course. "There are a finite amount of meetings, so I don't want to miss any."

Next week will be the third week of Peer-to-Peer in Montgomery County. There is no rain in the forecast as of yet. I find myself looking forward to seeing the class members-especially Jan, who has worked extra hard just to attend. It is a reflection of the courage of peers in recovery and how much we overcome to succeed.

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