Anonymous peer support helps cultivate youth mental health

If a young person is struggling, sometimes it can be less intimidating to talk to a friend or a peer than an adult — especially when reaching out is as easy as sending a text. But even talking to friends can be a challenge for many teens, as they fear being judged by peers who cannot relate.

Understanding that access and availability of mental health professionals may be difficult or include long wait times to care, offering a solution that helps meet the needs of young people in the moment can be a powerful tool to help address an ongoing mental health crisis.

With this insight top-of-mind, UnitedHealthcare in Nevada launched a pilot program to bring online peer support to 85,000 high school students in Clark County, Nevada with Supportiv, a virtual peer-to-peer chat service. The program is available to all high school students in Clark County School District — regardless of insurance coverage. Optum Behavioral Health also assisted in designing this program.

Studies demonstrate that youth peer support is associated with increased happiness and self-esteem, effective coping strategies and reductions in loneliness. Research also shows that peer support can help reduce emergency room visits and be an entry point for pursuing treatment — those with a mental health diagnosis who have shared concerns with peers are more likely to engage with care providers as a result.

In March, the program has also been made available in five counties in Kansas, with a mix of urban and rural communities. Supportiv will be available to over 17,000 students in Kansas throughout 2024. 

Here's how it works

The program uses teen ambassadors to promote the peer-to-peer chat service that matches teens across the country who are experiencing similar struggles.

"Because this is an anonymous chat service that asks students to share about their struggles, they are more willing to engage. We remove the fear of being judged. We also remove the negative association to mental health that many people have by removing those words and simply asking them ‘What's your struggle?’ Because we all have struggles," said Helena Plater-Zyberk, Co-Founder and CEO of Supportiv. 

Users are matched into topic-specific groups using simple statements such as, “My friends all have dates to homecoming, I don’t want to go alone” or “I just want to hide because everyone is staring at my acne.”

All chats are guided in real-time by a professionally trained moderator to ensure safety and keep the conversation on track. Resources, videos and articles are also sent to help with coping and problem solving. Chats are completely anonymous and available 24/7 at no cost to the student.

"Our moderators do more than just listen. They are trained to facilitate the conversations to not only keep students safe, but to reduce sadness, anger, loneliness, and stress, while improving overall optimism,” said Helena.

While peer support is not a replacement for therapy, it can be a more affordable and accessible way for mental and emotional support — and open a door for young adults who might not have otherwise thought about getting help.

A program like Supportiv can be a valuable resource because the behavioral health needs of teenagers can be different from that of adults. The chat service is about meeting students where they are, and creating a more user-friendly vehicle to engage with each other. It also gives them more freedom and agency to find solutions that work for them.

Sometimes all it takes is starting a conversation.

“If we want to help to resolve the youth mental health crisis, we are going to have to address these issues further upstream,” said Max Meyerhoff, MPH, a product development lead at Optum Behavioral Health. “It’s n­ot enough to focus only on crisis and emergency department follow-up. We have to get ahead of the curve, and this feels like a tangible and exciting step in that direction.”

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