Daring To Grow: Remote Peer Support in a Digital World

by Laura Semprini

I am the Remote Peer Support Coordinator for R Place Peer Recovery center. Being a fairly new position, I want to share the story of how we got started.

Remote peer support is a peer support service that is delivered through phone calls, texting, and video calls. These options are important for homebound and immunocompromised individuals, as well as those who may not be able to attend in-person programs. This has become more and more popular during the pandemic. Providing remote support also broadens geographic reach and accessibility, opening the door for people who don’t have a recovery center in their area.

Our Story

Due to the COVID pandemic, NAMI Johnson County as an organization and R Place had to drastically pivot operations and temporarily close our doors for in-person programming.  However, we wanted to continue offering peer support and other services for people and family members struggling with mental illness. We officially closed for only one week to make preparations for transitioning to remote services. We decided to offer Remote Peer Support, or RPS, where our trained Peer Support Specialists provide services to peer clients over the phone or via Zoom. 

In mid-March of 2020, our Peer Support Specialists began making phone calls to our more than 300 members who regularly came to R Place, informing them about our remote services.  Over 40 people initially signed up for Remote Peer Support services, and by the end of June 2020, 80 people were registered.

How it Works

Peer clients with mental illness use these calls to talk about whatever has been on their mind and receive support from someone with lived experience with mental illness.  Most of our peer clients are signed up for weekly calls, but some receive calls every day or every other day. We also help people get signed up for services and get connected to resources such as psychiatrists, therapists, and social security and housing.  From the very beginning, we trained our Peer Support Specialists on how to counsel members over the phone and via Zoom. We created new reporting methods and online call log forms to track sessions.

Partnerships and Referrals

We partner with a lot of local organizations such as Shelter House, Guidelink, and CommUnity to make this happen. We use an online platform called UniteUs to help with referrals.

Our Support Groups

In addition to Remote Peer Support, we quickly transitioned our support groups (Connection, Family Support Group, and Hearing Voices and/or Special Messages) to an online platform and worked tirelessly to help members gain access. Our number of participants in these groups continues to grow, and people still reported a sense of camaraderie and felt supported by other group members and the facilitators.

R Place also continued to offer our unique programming with local partners such as Sound Healing over Zoom. Some of these programs have now transitioned back to in-person when R Place reopened for in-person programming.

Looking Forward

Throughout 2020 and into today, we have seen an increase in demand for Remote Peer Support services. Our number of unique individuals served nearly doubled from April to July 2020.  Thanks to a grant through Iowa HHS, we are able to offer remote peer support across the state and we are expanding our outreach. We are sharing flyers and information at therapist and psychiatrist offices, student health centers, public libraries, access centers and more. We are reaching out to crisis services across the state so they know they can refer people to us who use their services once they become more stable. We are updating our marketing and outreach materials to be in several different languages and we use cultural competency to reach different groups.

Also because of the grant we received, we have been able to expand our hours and hire a “Lead Peer Support Specialist” who supports our staff and assists me in my supervisory role.  We recently launched Zoom phone for our staff to use while making RPS calls so we have a local number and the ability to text our peer clients from a designated work number. We are constantly looking at best practices and how to improve our services. Our staff attend various trainings to update their knowledge on how to provide the best quality services for peer support virtually.

Why it’s Unique

As I mentioned earlier, we are serving as follow-up for clients who have used crisis services or have been discharged from the hospital or access centers. Although there are important crisis services offered remotely throughout the state, consistent scheduled one-on-one remote calls with peer support specialists is a unique service that we are very proud to offer.

From the Other Perspective: “L”

I’d like to share a couple stories about peer clients who receive RPS calls from us. The first one is from someone who I’ll call “L.”

L receives calls from our peer support specialists twice a week and discusses the current state of her mental health, coping skills, and her goals for the future.  Our staff have built rapport with her over time and she feels a true connection to them. L manages serious mental illness, including hearing voices on a daily basis. She has incredible insight and awareness about her own mental health and what coping skills and strategies work for her. Recently, one of our staff members asked L if she would be interested in becoming a facilitator for one of our support groups.  She was very nervous about this possibility and questioned her abilities. Our staff members encouraged her and told her we believe in her ability to do this. She went through the training and now facilitates the group about once a month. She really enjoys this opportunity to give back and help others. L has shared with us how integral our remote peer support calls are for her to maintain her mental health. She appreciates the check-ins and the opportunity to talk to people who understand her. The feeling is definitely mutual, as our staff really enjoy talking with her, too!

From the Other Perspective: “K”

The next story is about someone who I’ll call “K.”

K has been receiving RPS for over a year now, and talks to one of our Peer Support Specialists and our Family Peer Support Specialist on a weekly basis. K originally reached out to our NAMI looking for resources for a family member who struggles with serious mental illness, including Anosognosia (ANNA SIG NO SIA), or the inability to to perceive his own illness, and he also experiences delusions. K wanted to learn how to best support him and strategies for communicating with him. Our PSS who works with K has drawn on his personal experience with serious mental illness and delusions to coach her on how to talk to her family member. When he was transferred to a different facility, our staff helped advocate for him and worked with K to ensure he was getting access to the services and treatment he needed. K looks forward to talking with her PSS and FPSS and is so thankful for the dedication of our staff to helping her with her own mental health and supporting her loved one.

Another one of our peer clients who receives daily Remote Peer Support calls from us and is an active participant in one of our support groups has called our remote peer support calls a “godsend.” She has repeatedly said she does not know what she would do without these calls. 

Laura is the Remote Peer Support Coordinator for R Place Peer Recovery Center, a program of NAMI Johnson County (NAMIJC).  She is a certified yoga instructor and teaches at Guidelink Access Center and Heartland Yoga Studio. Laura has a master’s degree in Non-Profit Organizations and Development, and graduated from the University of Iowa in 2010 with a BBA in Economics and International Business. Prior to working at NAMI, she was the Development Director for a social services agency in Cedar Rapids, and lived abroad with her husband while serving in the Peace Corps. In her free time, she enjoys running, baking, and gardening. She lives in Iowa City with her husband and two young daughters.

Add Your Comment