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People with Real Life Experience Provide Greater Understanding & Empathy

We’re learning more about how to effectively support individuals with mental health and/or substance use issues

Peer support is an essential part of supporting Vermonters who are experiencing emotional distress or struggling with their relationship to substances. To be able to fully understand and empathize with what another person is experiencing requires someone who has had similar experiences. Peer support is provided by people with lived experience that is relevant to the people they are supporting, such as having been in the mental health system or experienced addiction.

Peer support services, which are offered at many of Vermont’s community mental health agencies, provide an additional source of connection for the person going through a difficult time. Peer Support Team members have all navigated social service systems and are familiar with the marginalization that people who are psychiatrically labelled and people who misuse substances experience, because they have been in their shoes.

Peer support staff are also on more equal footing with the person seeking services. Because they are not in a clinical role where they must identify a diagnosis and determine treatment, peer support staff don’t have an agenda or pre-determined outcomes in mind when they support people. This strengthens the relationship because it allows peer supporters to show up as co-learners rather than as experts.

Initially developed in the 1960’s, research on peer support services shows that it can help improve relationships with providers, increase access to and extend involvement with treatment, and increase quality of life. In addition, peer services have been shown to decrease criminal justice involvement, substance use, hospitalization, and costs to the mental health system.

Sometimes the greatest support we can provide is to listen

Peer support staff are integrated into Vermont’s designated agency system to support individuals seeking help in whatever way works best for that person. This often means practicing deep listening, validating the person’s feelings and experiences, and being curious about how the person has come to understand their experiences. Peer support staff may also share their own personal story when it’s helpful, work with individuals to advocate for the services they feel will best serve their needs, connect them to community resources, and share their knowledge.

Jedediah Popp

Jedediah Popp, Co-Director of the Windham County Consortium on Substance Use (COSU) in Brattleboro, a community led organization to address opioid use in the county, has first-hand experience with the benefits of peer supports. When Popp first arrived in Brattleboro many years ago, he was homeless and dealing with substance use issues. Although he was able to connect to many available resources in Brattleboro, he found it challenging to relate to those who were trying to support him. It wasn’t until he connected with a peer who had also experienced homelessness and had lost his family, that Popp was able to start on a road to recovery. He credits his peer support with helping him learn to trust others and validating his experience.

Last year, Popp was hired by Health Care & Rehabilitation Services (HCRS) for the COSU, in part due to his lived experience. The COSU is in the process of incorporating people with lived experience into their leadership, knowing that this experiential knowledge will deepen the impact of their work.

Rosie Nevins-Alderfer

According to COSU Co-Director Rosie Nevins-Alderfer, “Communities are safer for everyone when people are held accountable to relationships rather than systems. By building relationships and providing support to all those in our community impacted by substance use and addiction, we create the fabric of connection that is so essential to recovery and prevention.”

Peer support staff are agents of change in the mental health system

Peer support programs are instrumental in bringing about improvements in programs and services. They help to reduce prejudice and discrimination, bring about key changes to mental health policies and practices, and increase knowledge of how to support people. At HCRS in southeastern Vermont, peer support advocates train colleagues in how best to work with those individuals they are supporting, and are part of many agency leadership and decision-making teams. They frequently present at statewide conferences and testify to the legislature.

Kate Lamphere

Kate Lamphere, Adult Services Division Director at HCRS in Springfield, stated after attending a Peer Support Training, “The single most important thing I have learned is to listen…Malaika Puffer and [HCRS’ Peer Support] team are leading the way, challenging us to do better. From the development of a person-centered philosophy of care, to clinical standards of care, to the development of a pretty amazing set of ethical guidelines. We still have a long way to go. As a leader in the mental health system, listening and learning from survivors of that system is the only way forward in my eyes.”

In Vermont, the Vermont Care Partners system of designated and specialized services agencies understands the significant benefit of peer supports. Although specific funding for peer support services is not currently available, providing peer supports across the State is a goal shared by the entire system of developmental and mental health services.

Reach out to your designated agency to see if they offer peer services. The Vermont Care Partners website can help you locate the community mental health agency closest to you:

For more information about peer supports, check out SAMHSA’s website:


This article was authored by Alice J. Bradeen, Communications and Fundraising Director, HCRS