Through her journey, Ryane Nickens realized that much of the gun violence in her own community springs from the pain of unaddressed trauma. Yet African-American residents of Washington, D.C., are often not well served by traditional mental health services. The TraRon Center, therefore, uses evidence-based, culturally appropriate peer-to-peer approaches to serve this population.
What is Peer Support?
Peer support is a common way for people of similar backgrounds and challenges to help one another.
Typically, people with more experience overcoming a particular challenge provide guidance, inspiration and emotional support to those still struggling. Of course, the more experienced person also often benefits by helping others.
Well-known peer support groups include Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gambler’s Anonymous and other 12-step programs. The group Compassionate Friends helps grieving parents. Other peer support programs connect people recovering from mental illness or chronic disease.
How does peer support work?
Experts believe that peer support works for several reasons. One is the simple psychological benefit of feeling part of a community. Another is that a sufferer sees their mentor as a role model who was once “like me:” “If she can do it, then maybe I can, too.” Finally, it can be easier to trust someone with your background who has already “been there.”
What is the evidence that peer support is effective?
There is extensive research into the efficacy of peer support programs, from AA to mental health programs to chronic medical illnesses.
And it is no less effective for grief. Dr. Paul Bartone, of the Defense Department’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, analyzed more than two decades of studies of peer support programs—across countries and ethnic groups—for people who have lost loved ones to everything from suicide and murder to drowning and cancer. The results showed that peer support reduced grief symptoms and increased personal growth.
One study applies directly to the TraRon Center. Archibong et al (2006) studied African-American parents whose children had been murdered in Baltimore, and found that parents perceived peer support as more helpful than professional counseling.
Scientific studies and interviews with experts led Dr. Bartone to identify eight factors for a successful peer support program:
The program is easy to access and responds quickly to clients.
The program is confidential.
The program offers clients a safe environment.
Peer supporter and client are well-matched.
Peer supporters are carefully selected.
The program partners with mental health professionals.
Peer supporters are thoroughly trained.
Peer supporters are monitored and cared for.
The TraRon Center works to meet all these goals.