With approximately one in four adults suffering from a diagnosable mental health disorder, coupled with restrictive funding and high case loads, the value of independent living centers (ILCs) providing peer-to-peer counseling is vital to effective mental health services. ILCs are generally thought of as resource centers solely for people with physical disabilities, but across the country, directors and staff at hundreds of centers identify themselves as people with mental health disabilities. These peers provide support for others coming to the ILCs.
"With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, this is the perfect time to highlight the union of independent living and mental health," said California State Independent Living Council Executive Director Liz Pazdral. "It's a given that people with shared experiences can relate better to one another and provide support from a place of authentic empathy. And it's often the practical advice resulting from peer support that helps a person rebuild his or her sense of community after a disconnecting experience."
Peer support started from people uniting to eliminate over-medication, coercion and human rights' violations of those living with mental illness. During the 1980s, acceptance of peer-delivered services in mental health grew, but little scientific evidence supported the trend. Beginning in 1988, the federal government funded research that produced evidence indicating peer-led services increased the social skills, decreased inpatient services and improved the self-confidence of consumers (sometimes known as survivors). By the late 1990s, the effectiveness of peer counseling was much more widely accepted.
In California, the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) was passed in 2004 and mandated funds to operationalize peer-to-peer strategies "to promote consumer-operated services as well as the employment of mental health consumers in the mental health system."
But even before MHSA passed, ILCs in California were making strides forward. Communities Actively Living Independent & Free, Independent Living Center of Kern County, Independent Living Resource Center serving Central California, Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco (ILRCSF), Silicon Valley Independent Living Center and Westside Center for Independent Living (WCIL) were building reputations for providing strong mental health peer support. ILRC-SF and WCIL were tapped nationally to train and provide education on peer counseling for people with mental health disabilities to all independent living centers.
According to Pazdral, "Peer-to-peer action is powerful within mental health services, integral to independent living and a political badge of pride for the network of statewide independent living centers."
The California State Independent Living Council is an independent state agency which, in cooperation with the California State Department of Rehabilitation, prepares and monitors the State Plan for Independent Living. SILC solicits continual public feedback on the effectiveness of independent living services and coordinates with similar agencies and councils at the state and federal levels to increase communication and help assure that services to people with disabilities are delivered effectively.