This month, we are sharing thoughts and insights on the importance of peer support services in healthcare, as well as other systems where peer supporters can be integrated. As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt across the U.S. and around the world and folks struggle with the fallout, we are seeing an increased need for mental health and substance use disorder services and supports.

COVID-19 mental health impacts  

For many, the virus has taken a terrible toll. Family and friends have been lost. Millions of jobs have been lost. Our collective and individual sense of what is “normal” has been lost.

In a May 14, 2020 news release, the United Nations called for a substantial investment in mental health services to avoid a “massive increase in mental health conditions in the coming months.”

World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this:

“It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a collective responsibility of governments and civil society, with the support of the whole United Nations System. A failure to take people’s emotional well-being seriously will lead to long-term social and economic costs to society.”

Focus on prevention

Public health experts, media and a growing number of policy makers are urgently emphasizing the critical necessity to take a preventive approach to this crisis, urging people to wear masks in public, practice physical distancing and increase testing. If we don’t embrace prevention, we will not beat this disease.

It’s not just infectious diseases like COVID-19 that require a robust, full court press preventive public health response. We need to get serious about prevention in mental health. A 2015 research article, Preventing Mental Illness: Closing the Evidence-Practice Gap Through Workforce and Service Planning stated:

Despite advances in treatment, there is little evidence that prevalence rates of mental illness are falling. While the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancers are common in policy dialogue and service delivery, the prevention of mental illness remains a neglected area.

Note the reference to “evidence-practice gap” in the article title. What does that mean? Here’s a great, succinct description from a 2014 article published in PLOS Medicine.

Health research promises societal benefit by making better health possible. However, there has always been a gap between research findings (what is known) and health care practice (what is done), described as the “evidence-practice” or “know-do” gap.

Peer support contributions

So, what are the implications to the peer support workforce I mentioned at the beginning of this article? How does prevention apply to this discussion? Why is there still an “evidence-practice” gap with regard to peer support?

There are 200+ articles published in the literature on peer support. Peer support has long been recognized as an evidence-based practice. In fact, there are several peer-developed, peer-delivered models grounded firmly in the principles of recovery and resiliency, choice and self-determination, and an understanding of a holistic approach to wellness. And these models have been shown to have a positive impact on traditional outcomes, predominantly measured in behavioral health, including significant reductions in hospital admissions, fewer re-admissions and decreased spending on high-cost, restrictive settings like psychiatric inpatient. While peer support is not a clinical service, it has been shown to impact clinical outcomes. Beyond this, folks receiving peer support services express very high degrees of satisfaction with those services and report improved quality of life.

This is an excerpt from the Magellan Healthcare eMpowered for Wellness July newsletter. To read the full article, go here.