April 9, 2024

Youth mental health is the defining public health crisis of our time.

                                               -Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General

There is a crucial need for more mental health care support in our country. Today, 157 million Americans live in areas with a shortage of mental health providers. (1) Limited provider capacity means that of the 46% of young adults who have diagnoses of substance abuse or mental illness, 55% of them receive no care. (2) And for historically underserved communities, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ populations, finding a culturally sensitive provider can be even more challenging. (3)

I’m a doctor. A doctor’s toolbox includes medical education and training, a license to diagnose, and the ability to prescribe treatment. So, when a colleague suggested that unlicensed folks with lived experience might be as good or even better at meeting the needs of people who are struggling with mental health, you might think that I’d be skeptical.

As I looked at the literature on peer support, I realized that the model of connecting those who have lived through the same struggles has been helping people for decades outside of clinical settings. Communities for people who are mutually struggling with grief and addiction (4), for example, are trusted and commonplace. No one can better understand what it is like to lose a loved one or to hit rock bottom than someone who has been there, too. It’s why groups of people continue to gather week after week, year after year, in church basements and recreation centers, to support each other in ways that friends or doctors never could. It’s why people living...

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