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Shery Mead on Intentional Peer Support

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Shery Mead

EM: Can you tell us a little bit about Intentional Peer Support, its philosophy and intentions?

SM: IPS is a system for relational co-development. Philosophically it comes out of a social constructionist, systemic paradigm. We believe meaning is made in a context and can only be challenged in trusting connections where both people are allowed to be vulnerable. The intentions of IPS are articulated in Three Principles:

1. Learning versus Helping: Instead of preferencing certain roles or expertise, we see both of us as having something important to contribute. We spend time learning about each other and avoid defaulting to problem-solving. We examine our assumptions and the ways we’ve learned to make meaning. Ideally, we construct a shared meaning together.

2. Relationship versus Individual: Traditional mental health practice focuses on the individual coming for services - their needs and feelings. Little time is spent paying attention to relational dynamics. In IPS we are always paying attention to the relationship - negotiating meaning and the needs of both people. We’re striving for the kind of relationship that both people genuinely value and find meaningful.

3. Hope versus Fear: The heart of this principle is sitting with discomfort. We pay attention to how fear drives reactivity. When we are afraid we tend to want to control the situation. With a hope-based focus, we embrace uncertainty instead of trying to manage or shut things down. Instead of forcing solutions, we hang in there with each other long enough for new possibilities to emerge.

EM: Can you share with us your thoughts on other alternatives to traditional mental health services?

SM: I think there are some good alternatives out there: Hearing Voices, Soteria, Open Dialogue, Alternatives to Suicide. But I also think there are a number of alternatives saying they do something different but are really doing the same old stuff. All too often, alternative services end up getting subsumed by traditional ways of doing things. Intentions might be great, but people really don’t understand how much of a paradigm shift is required to really change things. We see things like peer workers doing medication checks, writing progress notes, becoming mandatory reporters, etc.

I also think it is really important to look at ’outcomes’ differently. For example, if my alternative program is being compared to a more traditional program, I would say that if the outcomes are the same, there is a problem.

EM: Can you tell us a little about your own journey from “chronic patient” to mental health advocate?

SM: Becoming a chronic mental patient was an insidious process. I was so tired and so discouraged. In hospital settings, I got messages like you know you need to be here, it’s for your own good etc. It was tempting to buy into the diagnostic system; then having something wrong with me would somehow justify what I had been feeling. And it just happens so fast. Before you know it, they’ve defined your life, your “goals,” and your friends. They’ve told you what to expect, and they’ve taught you to comply.

Compliance is one of the most dangerous words in mental health language, it speaks to giving over one’s knowledge of what is right, what works, to someone who only knows generalities, not your life. I think this was pointed out to me one dreary afternoon when a psychiatric nurse I knew from a unit I frequented took me in her office and said, “Ok, Shery, are you going to be a chronic mental patient or a social worker, you have 10 minutes to decide.” (I had been in and out of social work school). It was at that moment that I knew I had a choice. Up to that point I just assumed that stuff happened to me - that I had no control over it.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens and adults?

SM: I find most of the dominant paradigm destructive and disturbing. The rate at which people are diagnosed and medicated is astounding. As a society, we seem to be condensing basic human needs - like the need for connection, community and caring - into chemical solutions. The responsibility is no longer with actual human beings anymore because we see the locus of the ‘problem’ as the person’s biology. So there is nothing anyone has to change. It’s just ‘take this pill’ rather than looking at how you’re operating as a family, community or larger culture.

In the end, it doesn’t really fix anything. For example, when I drink alcohol and it makes me feel better, it doesn’t mean that I have a biological shortage of alcohol … It means I’m too knocked out to notice my life has turned into something I’d rather not tolerate.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

SM: I would suggest finding some people with whom they can connect. People who won’t try to fix it, or make it better. I’d look for people who will listen deeply, ask the hard questions, and be honest about what works for them and what doesn’t. I’d also want to do my part to show up for the relationship - even when I don’t feel that great about myself and would rather have someone else let me off the hook. This is one of the most important times for both people to do their best to share power and maintain mutuality.


This piece was prepared by Shery Mead, Chris Hansen, and Sarah Knutson of Intentional Peer Support.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

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