By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

Peer support is at the heart of NAMI Spokane, but why?  Shamra Andrews and Scott Bowmer, both co-facilitators of Spokane Connection support groups, offered their insights. The Connection support groups they lead are for people who are managing mental health conditions and are led by trained peers who are on a similar journey.

“Even though not all mental health journeys are the same,” explained Andrews, “it helps for people in the group to know that they can relate to me and others because all of us have experience with mental health conditions and life. There is a sense of comradery in the group. There is not a sense of being judged. People in the group recognize that the person sharing has been in their shoes and has the same kind of struggles to deal with. All of us have experience with stigma, with finding health care, and with finding support.”

Bowmer added, “Peer support is getting in touch with your peers that also have mental illness and forming a support group to help with your mental illness. It is important because you don’t feel alone. You realize that other people are facing the same hurdles you are.”

Andrews said that peer support is important because people can feel isolated and afraid or shame.

“The peer support group is safe because there is the feeling that we are in this together,” Andrews said.

Andrews came to a peer support group for the first time in 2012 after dealing  with her mental health with health care providers and therapists for two decades.

She said, “Finding a NAMI peer support group was a big deal for me because it introduced me to peer support. It was really a big change and a big moment in my life to have found that. I didn’t know it existed. I had a sense of relief of being able to share a burden and having a community to network with.”

Having a network of people to support him is also what drew Bowmer to peer support.

“It is hard for people who don’t have a mental health condition to understand what you are going through and how you are feeling,” Bowmer said.

Andrews explained that NAMI trains the facilitators of the peer support groups. NAMI facilitators are there to guide the group and encourage discussion in the group.

She said, “It helps to share experiences from your own life to get people comfortable with feeling vulnerable. There are guidelines and principles of support that are read at every group so that everyone can agree on what is required of them while they are there including empathy, nonjudgement, and confidentiality.”

Bowmer added that he gets a wide mix of people that come to the group.

He said, “You can visibly see when people start sharing their stories how much it means for them to do that in that good environment. I’ve seen people really open up and share their own story once other people share their stories and they realize that they are not alone.”

Andrews said, “I’ve seen people act very surprised that they are comfortable enough to share tough incidents in the group. They are also surprised that it is more beneficial than they would have thought. Sharing can be very emotional. Some people are in tears as they share stuff that they have never shared before with anybody.”

Andrews added that she is fortunate to have peer support outside of NAMI in other relationships. She said that building a support network is important and having options of safe people to talk to or get help from can be useful.

Both Bowmer and Andrews volunteer to provide peer support because they wanted to give back to the community.

“I enjoy helping other people,” said Bowmer. “I always feel good after a support meeting. Now that I’m leading them, I still get the same satisfaction of being a member and sharing my story.”

Andrews added, “My work with peers helps me stay connected and helps address the challenges that are out there for myself and others. We need to stay connected.”

Andrews and Bowmer co-facilitate the group for those with mental health conditions that meets virtually on every 4th Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.. Register for the virtual group here. Bowmer is also a co-facilitator of the group for those with mental health conditions that meets in person in at the NAMI Spokane office every 2nd Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.. Register for the in-person group here.

Shamra Andrews is currently a volunteer with NAMI Spokane. She teaches peer-to-peer classes that provide education for people with mental health conditions and helps facilitate the monthly support group for people who have mental health conditions. 

Scott Bowmer is a former Merchant Marine. His volunteer work with NAMI includes co-leading peer support groups, co-leading eight week education programs for those who live with a mental health condition, and giving presentations as part of NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program.

Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.