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Opinion: Peer support can help bridge gaps in mental-health services

The Gazette logo The Gazette 2020-10-12 Mark Sorin and Paula Barbaresso, Special to Montreal Gazette
A discarded surgical mask lies in a pile of leaves in Montreal Monday September 28, 2020. Even once the pandemic is over, there is expected to be a longer-term impact on the demand for mental-health services. © Provided by The Gazette A discarded surgical mask lies in a pile of leaves in Montreal Monday September 28, 2020. Even once the pandemic is over, there is expected to be a longer-term impact on the demand for mental-health services.

A recent  report by Deloitte forecasts Canadians will experience an increase in mental-health issues over the coming years in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It suggests medical visits for mental-health issues could rise by between 54 and 163 per cent, and the total number of Canadians seeking medical attention for these issues will range from 6.3 million to 10.7 million. These are astronomical and concerning numbers.

Other reports are also suggesting during this pandemic young adults are more likely to experience moderate-to-severe anxiety, and feel lonely and feel depressed, compared with older populations.

It’s evident young adults in Canada face and will continue to face mental-health challenges at unprecedented levels. This will place a tremendous amount of pressure on existing mental-health services.

Therefore, it is imperative to make use of new approaches. One of these is to leverage peer support, a cost-effective, accessible form of support that can help bridge gaps in professional services. It’s empathetic, confidential and non-directional, and offered by a well-trained peer with similar lived experiences. A 2006 study showed peer support can help a person gain control over symptoms of mental illness, reduce hospitalization, offer social support and improve quality of life. There is tremendous potential in training young adults across Canada on how to support their peers and a significant need to increase funding to existing peer support programs and services.


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You don’t have to be a health professional to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR); similarly, you shouldn’t have to be a mental-health professional to provide basic support to someone who is struggling with their mental health. CPR training has become mandatory in many workplaces and high schools across Canada. It is time that basic mental health literacy and peer support training become part of the curriculum, as well.

As alumni of a peer support centre, we have witnessed the tremendous effect these services can have on improving the mental health of our peers. We also believe these skills should be made more accessible.

These peer support skills are also transferrable and have the potential to transform how young adults communicate with each other. Indeed, knowledge of these skills, such as the validation of a peer’s feelings and appropriate body language, can foster more meaningful and supportive conversations.

Peer support will not replace professional mental-health services, but it can complement them, increase accessibility and, ultimately, improve the mental health of thousands of Canadian youth.

Mark Sorin is an MD-PhD student at McGill University. He is a co-founder of the Canadian Peer Support Network (CPSN), where he is leading the training and research teams. Paula Barbaresso is a workplace health consultant and a cofounder of CPSN. Both have previously been involved with the McGill Peer Support Centre.

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