With New NIMH Grant, Cabassa and Stefančić Delve into Role of Peer Specialists in Delivering Health Interventions

August 19, 2016 @ 9:20 pm

Peer support among people with severe mental illness (SMI) is a practice with a longstanding tradition that is increasingly on the rise. More and more countries are turning to peer support as an economically feasible way to expand mental health care.

But more than that, peer support produces results.

Combined with formal training in evidence-based interventions, “peer-specialists” (as they are called) can produce as good or better results than non-peer-led programs, as several studies demonstrate.

At some level, it makes sense. Peers have first-hand experiences of illness, recovery, and service use that they can share with others who are going through similar challenges. They are able to win the trust of and create a rapport with people with SMI, while also providing role modeling, in a way that non-peer staff cannot.

But, while current theories suggest these factors make the difference, empirical evidence backing up these claims is lacking.

Associate Professor Leopoldo J. Cabassa hopes to fill in the gap. With the help of a new grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, he will be collaborating with CSSW research scientist Dr. Ana Stefančić in hopes of coming one step closer to analyzing what makes peer specialists so effective in promoting mind-body recovery and resiliency among persons with SMI.

“We hope that the work on this study will help bridge a critical gap in the field by allowing us to identify specific mechanisms that lead to the success of peer-specialists in delivering health interventions for people with SMI,” said Dr. Cabassa.

A parent ROI grant enabled Dr. Cabassa to conduct controlled effectiveness trials with peer-specialists at supportive housing agencies in New York City and Philadelphia. And now, with the help of this supplemental grant, Drs. Cabassa and Stefančić can expand on this pioneering work by conducting semi-structured qualitative interviews with those involved in the trial, including the participants, peer specialists and their supervisors.

The empirical findings of the study will provide the building blocks for a model of peer-led intervention. This model can then be transported across the field of peer-specialist services, ensuring that peer-specialists are effectively utilized. The research is especially well timed given that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), through several provisions, provides an opportunity for expanding the role of peer specialists in interdisciplinary health care teams through increased compensation and more professional training.

For the past 15 years, Dr. Stefančić has researched the effectiveness of housing and support services for individuals who have experienced homelessness, psychiatric disabilities, substance abuse, and complex medical conditions. The collaboration with Dr. Cabassa will be an extension of her past work and will draw on her expertise in translating research knowledge to practice.

“Understanding the work of peer specialists will not only help expand their role in mental health services, but will also provide valuable learnings for shifting care overall toward a more empathic, person-centered practice, especially when improving the health of highly vulnerable populations,” Dr. Stefančić explained.

Related external link:

Peer-Led Healthy Lifestyle Program in Supportive Housing