How Relationships and Time with Peers Can Improve Mental Health

peers interacting

If you’re struggling with mental health, it can feel like you’re alone. That’s true whether you have anxiety, depression, a substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, or any other diagnosable issue. It can feel like you’re isolated and split off from everyone else and that you’re alone. The thing is, millions of Americans struggle with these issues. In fact, 32.5% of the population has a diagnosed mental health disorder or substance use disorder. That essentially means that no matter what you’re dealing with, you have peers who are going through similar if not the same things, and whose experiences will align with your own. Taking the time to build relationships with those peers, whether through treatment groups, self-help groups, or even meetups can help you to broaden your understanding of your disorder, to improve your mental health, and to improve your quality of life.

Peers are people who struggle with similar challenges and who have a similar journey to your own. They don’t necessarily have the same experiences, the same life outlook, or the same goals. But, often, you’ll find that there are alignments and overlaps. Building relationships and getting support from people who can offer insight into what you’re going through, that you can help, and who can understand and empathize with your experiences can be immensely valuable for feeling accepted, normal, and for having a handle on your mental health.

Knowing You’re Not Alone

It’s one thing to be told that millions of people struggle with the same issues you do. It’s another to actually realize it by spending time with those people. Taking part in self-help and support groups can make it very clear that while you are unique in what you’re going through, you’re not alone. Not only are other people experiencing similar things to what you are, but they’re there, willing to listen, to share, to grow with you, and to support and be supported. That can go a long way towards feeling not alone.

Spending Time with Peers Improves Self-Esteem

There are dozens of studies showing that spending time with people who are like you in experiences, outlook, or challenges can improve your self-esteem. Many of those studies are based around teens and college students who benefit from sharing spaces with people of similar economic, social, and racial backgrounds. However, some focus on showing how individuals in mental health treatment and substance use disorder treatment actively benefit from spending time with people who actively count as peers.

Simply being around people who are like you in one way or another shows you that you’re normal. You’re not broken, there’s nothing wrong with you, and you can improve and grow as much as everyone else around you. It can give you perspective on where you fit into things. In isolation, you can feel like a failure and like you’re the only one struggling. In a group of peers, it can feel more like you’re sick and working to recover – and that shift in mindset is an extremely valuable thing for your mental health.

Acceptance and Nonjudgement

It doesn’t matter how well your group of normal friends and family mean, if they don’t know what you are going through, they can’t fully accept you. That’s a hard part of struggling with a mental health disorder.  You will struggle to feel fully accepted because people will always have problems with things that you cannot control. Working with a group of peers can give you that acceptance, because people know exactly what you’re going through. That can mean opportunities to work on healthier coping mechanisms, to manage symptoms, and to improve how you manage symptoms without guilt or unrealistic expectations – which can also be immensely helpful.

Of course, not every group of peers will be able to offer this. Many people in mental health treatment and substance use disorder treatment struggle with internalized ableism, internalized stigma, and social stigma against mental health disorders. However, working with your group will allow you to find a safe space where everyone is going through the same things.

people sharing experiences

Sharing Experiences

You often can’t share actual experiences of substance use disorder or mental health disorder with someone who hasn’t experienced them. You can tell someone who doesn’t have anxiety how you feel, but the most they can relate it to is the last thing they were anxious about – which is quite often very much not the same. People can relate to some degree, but to fully relate, you need to share with your peers. Not everyone will have the same experiences. But, if you share about an episode to a group with the same experiences as yourself, you’ll do so with the understanding that they know where you’re coming from. Getting to do so can be very good for your self-esteem because you won’t have to feel like you’re sharing to people who don’t actually know what you’re talking about or what your motivations are.

Social Accountability

Social accountability means having people who can keep you motivated, on track, and able to do things that you want. Social accountability can mean setting goals and sharing them with the group. For example, that’s often how things like Alcoholics Anonymous work. You invest in the group and then you actively feel bad having to tell the group of your peers that you’ve slipped up. It provides motivation to stay clean or sober. However, social accountability will impact many other aspects of mental health recovery as well. For example, going walking with a group can ensure that you have social accountability to keep going. That can mean:

  • Checking in on your goals
  • Doing something for your mental health with a group
  • Sharing your goals and keeping track of them with the group
  • Helping other people stay on track

This means that you should be able to work with your group, decide what you want to be accountable for, and work towards that. Whether that’s regular walks, keeping up with hygiene or house case, or otherwise putting effort into your mental health doesn’t matter. Your group can and will help you to stay accountable, even if it’s just by you checking in and telling them your progress every time you meet up.

female client getting help from a treatment center

Where Do You Meet Peers?

Meeting your peers often means actively seeking them out. That means joining self help and support groups, going to mental health treatment, joining meetups, and otherwise actively taking part in your community. Here, what you go to should depend on what kind of help you need. For example, self help groups can be a great way to stay in touch with your peers and to build relationships with them. But if you need more in-depth support than a self-help group can offer, it’s not enough.

Getting Help

If you or a loved one is struggling, building relationships with your peers can do a great deal for your mental health. At the same time, it’s important to understand that it’s not enough to ensure you get or stay healthy. You may need therapy, counseling, and medication. At the same time, having peers around to offer social support can allow you to improve your mental health over time, to maintain your recovery, and to improve your circumstances so you have less to deal with. Therefore, both are important.

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About Jim Sugel

SEO and Digital Marketing Expert Jim Sugel is an SEO and Digital Marketing Expert in addition to having achieved the coveted Google Partner status for PPC expertise. Prior to focusing on Digital Marketing, Jim worked in Information Technology roles at a variety of national firms as a software engineer and consultant, resulting in many years of professional coding and consulting experience. Jim holds a Bachelor of Science, cum laude in Computer Science and Psychology from Loyola University Chicago. After relocating to Southern California from his native Chicago, he became involved in the recovery industry here, discovering a natural niche in helping treatment centers with Digital Marketing and other technology projects. Jim is the Founder and CEO of Airtight Digital, a firm that specializes in digital marketing for the behavioral health industry. His other interests include hiking, canyoneering, urban exploration, and screenwriting. Jim now lives in beautiful and sunny Orange County, California.