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Spring 2022
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Coping with the Next Pandemic: Mental Health in Crisis

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Peer support is crucial to help manage the continuum of mental health struggles that we all may face.

As the pandemic pushes into its third year, the scientific community has learned much about COVID-19, but the scope of its effect on our health — and the number of lives it has claimed — go far beyond the virus itself.

Our mental health has been strained, with studies reporting rising rates of depression, anxiety, substance use and other negative impacts on well-being. We have lost loved ones to death, isolation or estrangement. Many have lost jobs, homes, or access to vital services like child care, transportation and health insurance.

Those with jobs deemed essential have endured more risk with fewer protections. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) have borne the heaviest burdens from COVID-19.

The pandemic’s upheaval shifted our lives in varying ways, creating a spectrum of enduring hardship that mirrors what Professor Edwin Fisher, PhD, calls a mental health continuum. The support of our peers helps us endure this upheaval.

"Peer support is a culture. We would like every sorority and fraternity president, every instructor, every supervisor of a workgroup and all the members in it to be better at listening to and supporting one another. The more those resources are spread, the more we see a healthy culture distinguished by mutuality and achievement."

— Professor Edwin Fisher, PhD

“Peer support is pertinent to the entire distribution of mental health,” says Fisher, who is a professor of health behavior at the Gillings School. “Whether it’s being available to a student who flunked an exam for the first time or helping somebody who’s labeled as schizophrenic manage social relationships, find a job or stay in housing, peer support is useful across that entire continuum.”

Fisher is director of Peers for Progress, a UNC-Chapel Hill program developed by the American Academy of Family Physicians to help people with chronic conditions find support from a peer – someone who has a shared lived experience and can provide encouragement and resources to manage long-term health. Sometimes that experience comes through a shared health condition, but more often it comes from shared social connections or interests.

“A lot of research shows it’s not the number of friends you have — it’s the variety of social connections,” Fisher explains. “When you’re angry at somebody at work or in your family, you want to talk to somebody who’s not a part of that. Or maybe you need to talk to somebody who understands what it’s like to be working on deadline and have a crying baby and an unsympathetic boss.”

Peer support is a need we all share — one that works best when ongoing access is built into all aspects of life. Since its inception, Peers for Progress has grown into a global network of researchers, experts and advocates who aim to make that support accessible.

“It doesn’t mean going to a group every week for the rest of your life,” Fisher says. “Peer support is a culture. We would like every sorority and fraternity president, every instructor, every supervisor of a workgroup and all the members in it to be better at listening to and supporting one another. The more those resources are spread, the more we see a healthy culture distinguished by mutuality and achievement.”

In recognition of this need, UNC-Chapel Hill established the Peer Support Core, which includes Fisher, Associate Director Samantha Luu, MPH, and a team from Carolina and the Gillings School who are working to increase awareness and create opportunities to provide that listening ear. This includes unit-level programs, individual training and a framework for support pods, which are informal groups based on shared experiences or interests.

"At the end of the day, a lot of people just want another person to talk to, especially someone who is unbiased and will listen without judgement."

— Toby Turla, student

Gillings is host to pods ranging from support for BIPOC and international students – facilitated by Associate Dean for Student Affairs Charletta Sims Evans, MEd – to pods hosted by the Culture of Health that encourage healthy home environments, which have been critical during the pandemic.

Gillings students Toby Turla and Sonam Shah have also co-founded Peer2Peer, a student-led group at Carolina that offers students free support sessions with a trained peer responder.

“At the end of the day, a lot of people just want another person to talk to, especially someone who is unbiased and will listen without judgement,” says Turla.

A peer support approach to mental health is a multi-layered one, according to Fisher — one that addresses isolation and anxiety by teaching people critical social support skills, helping supervisors support their employees, and addressing systemic or organizational issues that place unrealistic demands on individuals.

“Skills are important,” Fisher says, “but skills need to be implemented in a way that’s complimentary to organizational and system-level interventions. Otherwise, a lack of individual skills can very easily become victim blaming.”

UNC and Peers for Progress provide resources to strengthen peer support skills. UNC’s Heels Care Network is a hub of mental health and well-being resources. Organizations and workplaces looking to establish pods or other peer support services can take advantage of the extensive guides developed by the UNC Peer Support Core.

If you need immediate mental health care, resources are available:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 (TALK) or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
  • National Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
  • Call your organization’s employee assistance program or your health plan for services