A peer respite is a little bit like a bed-and-breakfast for guests experiencing mental distress. They offer guests a home-like environment and operate as short-term residential centers. They are also staffed by peers with lived experience of mental health struggles.
The idea behind this new model of mental health support is that peer staff can respond to guests in ways that are unlike the ways that case managers, social workers, therapists, or psychiatrists are trained to relate to their clients. Instead, peers can share stories of hope and healing from their own lives, while offering voluntary and recovery-oriented support for guests. This dynamic centers on a mutual exchange of stories, personal connection, and the interpretation of mental distress as a valid and meaningful pursuit.
In a study done of a peer respite in California, researchers learned that the model can serve as an effective alternative to psychiatric hospitalization. Their study revealed that guests who checked into the peer respite were 70% less likely to use psychiatric inpatient or emergency services than those who didn’t stay there. Another recent study conducted in New York highlighted the cost-saving aspect of peer respite care and improved health outcomes for guests who participated in the program. Studies like these provide an evidence base for the efficacy of the model. In turn, this evidence base can be used to advocate for the expansion of peer respite programs in other public mental health systems.
Over the course of my fellowship, I have studied peer respites as unique sites of innovation in community mental health. My colleague Dr. Adriane Barroso and I have worked together to interview a number of peer respite program directors, peer staff, and guests. As a part of our research, we also observed peer staff and guest interactions and participated in several peer support group meetings and staff meetings at peer respites. Some of our research findings have been published in the academic journal Social Work in Mental Health and points to the public policies needed to improve mental health care service delivery.
We still have a great deal to learn about the successes, failures, and ethical challenges associated with recent efforts to integrate peers as a workforce and the peer respite model within public mental health care. For this reason, peer respites are fascinating case studies of what happens when community activists and organizers gain a seat at the table and fight for systems transformation from within and outside of traditional systems of care.