Peer Mentoring and Mental Health Recovery

A peer mentor is typically seen as someone to look up to in a professional sense; someone who knows the ropes, someone to guide you, someone to protect you from making the mistakes they made, and someone to go to when you are unsure or need advice. Peer mentors exist at the school level with upper classmen mentoring underclassmen, and are a well established institution in numerous professions. Recently, however, the use of peer mentors in the mental healthcare field has found its way into American practices. Interestingly enough, peer mentors for mental health recovery treatment plans differ quite remarkably in reference to their duties between the American model of support and that developed by practitioners in the United Kingdom.

In cutting-edge American mental health facilities, one is beginning to notice the development of peer support groups and peer mentors. These peer mentors are mental healthcare consumers well on their way to successful recovery who have been employed by the facility they are receiving care from to help those at lower functional levels with similar diagnosis.

The benefits implicit therein are that the peer mentor has first-hand knowledge of what the mentee is experiencing. They understand the withdrawal pains. They can empathize with the frustrations of self-forgiveness. And they can guide mentees to more productive paths. Furthermore, peer mentors humanize the face of mental healthcare for each individual consumer; the treatment becomes relatable and believable because it is coming from the mouth of someone with the mentee’s very same diagnosis who has picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and made a success of themselves with the prescribed treatment plan.

In the U.S. context, peer mentors are typically a supplementary service; they are not primary care, they merely act as another factor of treatment. They exist to teach mental healthcare consumers how to function properly in the world again; mentors teach mentees how to get to the bus, how to get a transit card, where to get their groceries, where the bank is, etc. Professional providers still maintain their position as primary care giver and occupy the main psychotherapy role. Mental healthcare consumers argue this is very beneficial for mental health recovery, but would like to see more out of their peer mentors.

In the United Kingdom, however, peer mentors almost take the place of primary care givers in regard to psychoanalytical duties. When an individual with a mental illness experiences a downswing, it is their peer mentor who receives a call, not their doctor. This comes at a loss, however, for in taking on such a high-level role, peer mentors in the United Kingdom tend to ignore lower-level functions such as re-educating their mentees on the necessities, such as how to catch the bus, where to get their transit pass, etc with the expectation that the mentee’s support network will take on such duties.

The inconsistency in how the concept of peer mentors and peer support groups is approached is symptomatic of the differences between American and U.K. mental healthcare beliefs. In the United Kingdom, mental illnesses are seen as a communal responsibility; they are not shameful, it is merely the job of an individual’s support network to emotionally and physically encourage the individual throughout his/her treatment plan. In the United States, however, a mental illness is seen as an impurity in the family, and is followed far too frequently with alienation from social support groups.

Thus the U.K. peer mentors, as in following with their culture, take the lead in guiding mentee’s through troubled water they have already traversed. In America, mentors must take on the lonely role of the mental healthcare consumer’s only support group, thus teach them the necessities of life while leaving psychological treatment to the doctor.

Both approaches have their benefits for mental health recovery. Consumers seem to indicate preference towards approaching their peer mentors with day-to-day problems rather than a psychologist or psychiatrist who may sympathize, but not empathize, with their diagnosis, thus profess favoritism towards the U.K. model. Contrarily, however, one cannot change an entire culture, and American consumers enjoy the basic knowledge bestowed upon them by peer support groups; thus express a need for the American style as well.

Peer mentors can prove immensely influential in mental health recovery with regard to providing motivation and hope. Hope is a critical factor in recovery from mental illnesses, as can be read in my article Spirituality and Hope in Mental Health. Peer support, and its role in mental health recovery, is yet to be firmly established in the American context however; thus we must wait with abated breath as the movement grows to see what role peer mentors will take on next.

How Do Nutrition and Mental Health Work Together For Your Benefit?

How exactly does nutrition and mental health go together? What effect does the food we eat have on our mental well being? Can we make some changes that will positively influence our brains and the state we find ourselves in? Absolutely.

The foods we eat can greatly affect the body and its systems. The types of nutrients (or the lack of them) determines how our body and mind operates. If you find yourself dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental issues making some adjustments in your diet may help.

Mental nutrition and health related food is not something new, but has been somewhat overlooked by the public and to an extent health professionals. Diet and exercise are usually offered up as helpful tips to combat mental disorders, but the information is often general. Usually doctors go for therapy and drugs for more noticeable forms of depression and anxiety. They do so without more specifically looking at how natural substances can help without the need for drugs or other expensive options.

However, recent nutrition and mental health studies have begun to highlight specific natural substances that directly impact mood, anxiety and depression. Many of these we can get in our diet by adjusting the foods we eat. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get enough of these even by eating right due to the fact that much of the food we get in stores is processed to the point of removing nutrients. Usually a person will need to both eat the right foods and use supplements to get the total amount needed to make a change in their mental state.

Mental nutrition and health experts have noticed that B complex vitamins have a role in mental function and mood. B complex vitamins have been understood to help provide energy to the body by working in the process of breaking down food into energy more efficiently, but research also shows that they work in the brain to protect and maintain nerve cells and brain function. Increasing levels of B complex vitamins brought noticeable improvement in mood, memory and mental energy for those studied over time.

The nutrition and mental health studies also noted that what was good for the heart was also good for the mind. Reducing bad fats and increasing Omega 3 fatty acids like those found in fish had a positive effect on the brain as well. Omega 3′s contain DHA and EPA two fatty acids that help create healthy nerve cells and promote mood and function. There have been studies using Omega 3′s to treat depression with positive results.

In addition to eating less fatty foods, increasing Omega 3′s and B vitamins, mental nutrition and health experts also recommend adding some nutritional supplements to the mix. These supplements contain various natural extracts and compounds that the body needs to produce neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals necessary for proper communication between nerve cells as well as regulating things like mood.

For example, 5-HTP is a substance the body uses to create serotonin. Serotonin, is a brain chemical that is responsible for mood, appetite, sleep functions, etc. People fighting depression and insomnia often have issues with their serotonin levels. A supplement with 5-HTP can help the body to increase the level of serotonin in the brain and alleviate the symptoms of depression and sleeplessness.

Another substance recommended by nutrition and mental health research is SAM-e. SAM-e has been used in Europe and other countries for years to treat depression and other mental issues but has only recently begun to see use in the US. SAM-e is used by the brain to create a variety of brain chemicals and neurotransmitters. Studies done on SAM-e showed that some people started responding to it in literally hours, noticing positive effects. SAM-e may also be helpful to people who can’t take prozac or who don’t respond well to the drug.

There are other compounds too like L-Tyrosine, Acetyl L-Carnitine, choline, etc. that are helpful. However, we don’t have time or space to go into all of them here. The important things is that there are natural substances out there that nutrition and mental health experts are now offering their patients in light of recent research. These substances can have a profound impact on lifting depression, anxiety and reducing stress. As with anything it is important to find a health provider who is familiar and comfortable with these things that can help you decide what might help you and what might interact with any medicines you are taking. Aside from that, making some simple adjustments in the food you eat and taking a daily supplement may be just what you need to get to a better place mentally.