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by Saiarchana Darira

How can policy be used as a tool to help people feel less alone in the world? 

When COVID-19 broke out in 2020, I felt deeply alone and isolated from society due to social distancing. Peer support helped me cope with the events that were unfolding in the world, and the support I received inspired my mental health advocacy journey – creating mindfulness initiatives to support others who were struggling with their mental health. 

I am currently studying environmental science and policy at Columbia University, and it’s easy to see the overlap of the role of policy in driving climate infrastructure. When I first started advocating for mental health resources, I assumed that policy and mental health were two disparate fields that rarely interlapped. Yet, when I joined Mental Health America’s Youth Policy Accelerator cohort, I realized that policy can drive mental health and peer-to-peer support infrastructure. Policy plays a powerful role in transforming the mental health of communities. 

Mental Health America recently hosted a Youth Town Hall for Policy Change to discuss the importance of various mental health bills and the role of youth in advocating for mental health policy. The town hall featured multiple speakers in the mental health sector and policy realm, including Parker Reynolds, the health policy advisor for Sen. Bill Cassidy, who discussed the importance of youth actively participating in policy advocacy. He encouraged youth to “take the time to write into their office” because congressional offices are receptive to these letters. Reynolds said around 800 bills in the Senate focus on health care, and people can communicate to Senators which bills they believe need to be prioritized. 

The town hall also featured a youth leaders panel, where young people from various backgrounds discussed the importance of peer-to-peer support. Dionne Regis, a Youth Policy Accelerator member, discussed how peer-to-peer support is especially essential for “students of color and students of immigrant backgrounds,” where mental health “is often seen as taboo and isn’t talked about as much in the family unit.” Peer-to-peer support can support these individuals in getting access to mental health support if they are not able to find that support at home. 

Aimee Resnik, another member of the Youth Policy Accelerator, discussed the importance of the “peer support technical assistance center” section of the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Reauthorization Act of 2023, also known as the SUPPORT Reauthorization Act. She discussed how many suicide prevention call centers are experiencing a high increase in calls and have been unable to handle all of them, which is why she believes that expanding secondary peer-to-peer lines is important. 

What is the SUPPORT Reauthorization Act? 

The bipartisan SUPPORT Reauthorization Act was introduced by Sen. Bill Cassidy in July 2023 because the original SUPPORT Act was set to expire in September 2023. This reauthorization act would ensure that essential provisions of the original SUPPORT Act would stay intact while also adding modifiers critical to strengthening the original act, including its peer-to-peer support elements. 

Why is peer support an important resource? 

Before diving into the specific elements of this bill, let’s first explore its relevance. According to data collected by Mental Health America, 44% of 14-18-year-olds indicated that access to youth peer support was one of the most important mental health resources for them. Because there can be challenges with getting access to mental health care, such as costs of services, along with a shortage of U.S. mental health professionals, youth peer support is a vital resource. The Born This Way Foundation found that 36% of youth would go to a friend first when they were struggling with a serious concern around their mental health and that around 67% of youth believe that youth peer support is helpful. Additionally, over 80% of youth believe that peer support can meet the diversity of their communities, as the current mental health workforce does not reflect the diverse identities and experiences of young people seeking support. Although it is not a replacement for clinical mental health care, peer support has been shown to improve the lives of youth struggling with mental health. 

What are the key youth peer support elements of the SUPPORT Reauthorization Act? 

The team at Mental Health America, including the Youth Policy Accelerator Cohort, identified four key elements in the SUPPORT Reauthorization Act that would bring progress to youth peer-to-peer programs across the nation. 

1. Create grants for peer-to-peer programs in high school 

Funding is essential in ensuring that high schools can implement effective peer support programs. The SUPPORT Reauthorization Act would allow high schools to secure grant funding for mental health support programs, which would finance peer support initiatives. 

2. Reauthorize a federal peer support technical assistance center 

The bill would reauthorize funding for the enhancement of the National Peer-Run Training and Technical Assistance Center for Addiction Recovery Support; grow development and training opportunities for the specialists giving peer support to others; improve the accessibility and effectiveness of peer support initiatives; and build local support through the establishment of a pilot regional center of excellence. 

3. Collect vital data on youth peer services in Medicaid 

Medicaid covers 1 in 2 youth, making it an important source for funding youth peer services. Currently, we have limited data about the use of youth peer services in Medicaid. Access to this data would help us better understand what is happening, as well as advocate for expanded access to youth peer support for the many young people who want it. 

4. Codify the Office of Recovery at SAMHSA to promote lived experience 

Two years ago, the Office of Recovery in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) was established to create partnerships that support families, communities, and all people affected by mental health struggles and/or substance-related issues on the path to recovery, resilience, and wellness. This bill would codify SAMHSA’s Office of Recovery, allowing for a sustained organization that promotes access, regulation, and the advancement of recovery support services. 

Demand action for youth peer support 

The SUPPORT Reauthorization Act creates the path for essential peer-to-peer mental health infrastructure. These provisions must not get lost before the final bill is passed. Participate in our action alert to communicate to your members of Congress that investment in peer support is critical to addressing the youth mental health crisis. 

The recording for the town hall can be found here.

Saiarchana Darira is a member of the first cohort of Mental Health America’s Youth Policy Accelerator. She is currently studying at Columbia University and is a member of the U.S. Youth Advisory Council to the United Nations Ocean Decade.