Extending Peer Support Beyond Crisis
Ensuring everyone can get help with acute emotional challenges is so important it should be considered a basic human right. But even if we succeeded at that, there would still be a lot of work to do. Most of our challenges, be it mood, eating disorders, or anxiety, are not acute, but chronic. The mental health race isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. (Or maybe it’s a marathon where you’re also forced to sprint every few miles. 😬 Don’t sign me up for that one).
What if we could bring some of the same elements that have made Crisis Text Line successful to help people manage more chronic, long-term issues? My partner Daniel and I have been inspired to try this, and our attempt is called Campfire.
A little background on how I got excited about this. Way back in college I joined a peer counseling group. It was called Room 13, and it provided a place for students in crisis to drop in to talk with staffers (or get free condoms, which was the more popular option).
The experience was transformational for me. Firstly, I was amazed by how the power of active listening alone could help heal serious issues. I was happy to see how much help we could provide, even with our very limited training. Sometimes that lack of training was even helpful: rather than trying to solve people’s problems, we focused on empathizing with students and letting drop-ins find their own direction.
However, what surprised me the most was how being a counselor benefited me personally. I felt a little guilty about it actually. Being able to help others in need and getting a window into their struggles was profoundly therapeutic for me. I felt more connected to my fellow humans. As I tried to support them, they were able to help me in return.
This experience is part of why I’m so excited that Crisis Text Line exists now. I can only imagine the benefits it’s providing, to a volume of people our little band could never have imagined. It is also a big part of why I feel that peer support is an amazing and untapped resource that we have at our disposal in the fight to improve mental health.
Campfire’s vision is utilizing peer support in groups, while overcoming some common barriers to seeking help.
We’re building groups of 5-10 people who share the same challenges, facilitated by a supervising peer, which we call a host. Hosts bring some structure and facilitate in the discussion, rather than explicitly lead in the literal sense. Groups meet weekly via video chat to establish a bond. Using our mobile app, groups can grow that bond and provide support any time in a private chat.
The focus of Campfire is to provide emotional support and empathy to others in similar situations. While it’s not therapy, peer support can be extremely effective, and can provide some benefits that professionals can’t. Peers can demonstrate true empathy, since members are going through the same thing you are in real-time, right alongside you. Peer groups can also combat loneliness, which in itself can be more of a health risk than smoking or obesity.
Our hope is that this structure can address some of the key barriers that stop people from getting care. One of the foremost problems is cost - by their nature peer-focused groups are significantly less expensive to run. Another is accessibility and convenience. Simply getting to an in-person meeting is challenging, so by providing a digital meeting place, group members can receive help, regardless of where they are. The last is the most insidious - stigma. Not only is it hard to admit to others that we’re struggling, but it’s also hard to admit it to ourselves. We hope that Campfire groups feel more like a healthy social activity rather than a required part of your health care. Something you’d like to tell other people you are part of.
We’ve just finished our first pilot, with group topics focusing on depression, grief and eating disorders, and the results so far have been exciting. Video has proven to be an effective medium to build bonds quickly. With these results under our belt we’re excited to launch our next batch of groups.We’re encouraged by the feedback we get from group members like Dermot who have told us: “I enjoy hearing about the experiences of other group members. I’m surprised by how similar they are to mine. Knowing you're not alone is powerful.”
We’re looking to create a culture where talking about our struggles and getting support is as common as exercise is for maintaining physical health. We want this to be true for everyone, not just for those who can afford it.
Join Campfire now to help us build this world together.