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Peer support effective recovery tool

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Sometimes, Susan Kilbride Roper says, the only person who can save you is someone who has been there himself. Your family, while wanting to help, can't truly understand. Or you're “pedalling backwards” so hard to hide it from them that you only cycle deeper into depression. And the last place you want to go is the hospital.

So when Ms. Roper, 49, realized that she needed help recently, she called a friend from her bipolar peer support group – which she herself had created after a severe manic episode in 2005. Unable to find anyone to help her back then, she had started the weekly sessions in a Halifax seniors' centre.

Peer support is seen as one of the most effective tools for long-term recovery, yet groups often begin informally as Ms. Roper's did – on the initiative of a few people with a shared mental illness. About 70 visitors have wandered in and out of the sessions since they started, with just over a dozen regulars who never miss the Monday meetings. No topic is off-limits. They share treatment options and coping strategies, and serve as an early-warning system for each other, since it is often hard for individuals swept up in mania or depression to see the symptoms for themselves.

“It's wonderful to walk into a room, and you really don't have to say anything,” says Ms. Roper, a former stockbroker who works as a patient-rights advocate for people with mental illness. “They can tell, by looking at your face or listening to your voice, if you are in danger. You can just say, ‘Look, I'm getting a little scared. I'm getting a little high.' ”

The support extends beyond meetings: A few years ago, a friend from the group had phoned Ms. Roper to ask for money. When she went to see the woman, she found expensive purchases strewn around the apartment.

Her friend, angry and agitated, threw her out, but Ms. Roper waited on the front doorstep all night until the woman's mother arrived from New Brunswick. The police eventually took her friend to the hospital.

That same friend was able to return the favour, taking Ms. Roper in when she called, asking for help. They spent two days taking walks, hanging out in the apartment, speaking only when Ms. Roper felt ready.

“There is nothing I can't say to her that she doesn't understand,” she says. “We have seen each other naked, so to speak.”

Ms. Roper is feeling better these days, but she continues to go to the group, largely because she knows that she can help new members. “In order to be a healthy peer group, you need healthy peers,” she says. “But you never go to a meeting where you don't get something out of it.”

Erin Anderssen is a senior feature writer for The Globe and Mail. This is one of a series on individuals and families across Canada who are dealing with mental-health issues.

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