When I began to research peer counseling for this article, I thought I would find a lot of information that could easily be applied to our mission at Marriage Advocates. I found very little in the way of general information about the topic, but a plethora of peer counseling programs devoted to various issues and topics from breast-feeding to addictions and all kinds of mental health issues. Descriptions of all of these programs, and in some cases, training materials were available for those who wished to participate as volunteers in them. What seemed to be lacking, however, was a generalized discussion of the principles and techniques involved in working to help a person overcome problems not related to the specific program.
Not ready to simply rehash what we already have posted on our forums, I dug deeper into the topic and found some things tucked neatly inside various articles and blog posts. There was more buried within the websites of organizations and institutions from universities to hospitals devoted to the treatment of cancer and other diseases. I also found the concept of peer counseling referred to by other names including “peer support networks,” “mentor programs,” “self-help” and “self-awareness” groups, and perhaps the most common of such groups – Alcoholics Anonymous.
Peer Counseling Groups
Just about all of these groups focus on helping people with disabilities or mental health issues. They all use terms that many of us would be familiar with including “recovery” and “relationship” as well as terms typically associated with the mental health and medical fields. It was while looking through the material that I stumbled upon a training manual for peer counselors produced by the State of Washington as part of their public mental health system. I was able to glean quite a bit of general information from this resource, which led me to additional resources. I’m still digesting much of what I found, but an article can only communicate what is actually understood.
Peer Counseling and the Consumer Movement
Before the 1970s, most lay people involved in mental health fields were relegated to clerical tasks such as compiling notes, filing, answering telephones and setting appointments. The most notable exception was Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935 and well established by the late 20th century as a beneficial program, even among most professionals.
As early as the late 19th century, a handful of individuals wrote about their experiences in institutionalized mental health facilities. Their accounts of the abuses, indignities and mistreatment at the hands of their caregivers went largely ignored until deinstitutionalization of the system began taking place in the 1950s. As more and more people were released from mental health facilities, they began to create relationships and loose groups within the communities where they lived. Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, groups began to band together and became better organized. They began to seek self-determination, to be given power over their own treatment, and to overcome what they saw as rejection by society.
In 1978, a former mental health patient named Judy Chamberlin wrote a book titled On Our Own. This book became a sort of benchmark in the history of the consumer movement as it relates to mental health and disabilities. For the first time, consumers and others could read about what it was like to experience the mental health system. From this movement came the idea of self-help groups, led by members of the community they represent. Members of the group rather than professionals often led these groups, based on the assumption that people who share the same illness or problems can help themselves and each other learn to cope with their conditions.
Before long, self-help groups for nearly every kind of medical and mental health condition began to spring up. Today consumers of nearly everything have places to discuss topics from how to get their dealer to fix their car to finding the right surgeon to do a procedure, and even how to find the right contractor to install replacement windows. With the advent of Usenet and later the Internet, these self-help groups were able to find people with many things in common from all over the world. Today a person can find others with similar interests or problems who might be located many miles away, even in other countries. Together they find support, information, education, and the one ingredient once missing or so difficult to find – hope.
Marriage Advocates is but one resource for those seeking a community of people with common issues related to marriage and romantic relationships. Many such places exist today. Most are operated by experts or professionals in the field of marital counseling, including authors of books, marital improvement programs, religious groups and other organizations. At Marriage Advocates, our mission is to help those who find their marriages in crisis, and to offer support and help to those who want a stronger, better and more fulfilling marriage. We are a self-help and self-education group dedicated to offering ideas, personal experience and hope to those seeking to improve their relationship. None of us are “experts” or trained professionals. We are merely a group of individuals with often seemingly conflicting ideas born of personal experience. Our one common desire is to help others find ways to make their marriages better.
This is the heart of peer counseling. We all have a story to share. We all have learned things as the result of personal experience. It is this experience and the things we have learned from it that we wish to share with others seeking help and hope for a better marriage.