I started Peer Support Specialist training last week, to become qualified to work in an entry-level mental health and recovery position soon. A major aspect of the certification is to focus on how someone who has a mental illness themselves can empathize with others in the same situation. And that empathy is a real part of connecting to, and gaining the trust of, those struggling with a serious mental illness and all of its ramifications—giving them possibly more hope and strength than doctors and other professionals who haven't suffered like they have. Giving hope, and offering practical, hands on assistance can go a long ways in their improvement.
As someone who has struggled for many years with mental illness (major depression), I can tell you the importance of having supportive people in my life to give help and hope, really feeling alongside me the pain and stress I was going through. They helped me find possible solutions—at least solutions that might help somewhat, as I sought more permanent change. Having such assistance from people I was close to has helped greatly in getting better, over the years. These loving, empathetic helpers: family, friends, neighbors, co-workers—they have meant so very much in my own recovery...every bit as important as professional help.
You too make a difference—and can make a difference—to those you know who may have a mental illness diagnosis. You can perhaps imagine yourself in their shoes; as well as see the help you are being to them. Even if you don't know what to do or say to help them, just being a listening ear goes a long way towards helping. Your understanding helps keep them in community, away from isolation. So, just be available; no counseling training or other certifications needed!
If interested in knowing more about peer supports in mental health systems, here are a couple of links to national organizations that may be helpful. While we can't endorse the services provided, we sure hope it will be helpful.