Recovery and Peer Support in Community Mental Health Services:  U.S.-China Exchange for a Paradigm Shift

All day
Through July 11, 2019
Guangzhou & Chengdu

Jul. 6

For the past 15 years, the Chinese state has been actively building a community mental health infrastructure across the country. After the development of many professional services, stakeholders are now looking for ways to center the voices and experiences of people with mental illnesses in service design and delivery. Peer support—practices in which people with lived experiences of mental illnesses provide services to other people going through similar experiences—is a promising direction.

Thanks to the generous support of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing and the University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong, Professor Zhiying Ma at the School of Social Service Administration organized a series of events and activities to promote peer support and explore collaborations in Summer 2019. On July 6-7, “Achieving Recovery through Peer Services: Guangzhou Medical University-University of Chicago Community Mental Health Forum” was held in Asia International Hotel, Guangzhou. Speakers included leading experts on recovery and peer support from the United States, as well as policymakers, researchers, leading psychiatrists, social workers, persons with lived experiences, and family caregivers from across China who had been trying out peer support in different capacities. They shared their knowledge and expertise, discussed cultural adaptability of peer support, and explored practical challenges and solutions. There were more than 200 people in the audience, many of whom were people with lived experiences and their caregivers. As some audience members remarked, it was a rare occasion to have researchers, providers, persons with mental health needs, and caregivers in the same room, talking about an issue of common interest on an equal footing.

The open forum lasted for a day and a half, after which a close-door session was held for U.S. experts and local stakeholders to discuss collaborations. Before and after the forum, the team of U.S. experts visited various community mental health agencies in Guangzhou in order to have a grounded understanding of where and how peer support might take place.

After Guangzhou, the team of U.S. experts traveled to Chengdu. On July 9, they visited the Hope Clubhouse to learn about the mental health recovery work there. On July 10, they participated in a workshop on peer support hosted by the Psychosomatic Rehabilitation Section of the Sichuan West China Psychiatric Association. There, they gave talks on peer support in the United States and its adaptability in China to an audience of psychiatrists, social workers, peers with mental health needs, and caregivers. On July 11, the U.S. experts had a closed-door meeting with representatives from the Hope Clubhouse and West China Hospital to discuss potential collaborations.

In Hong Kong, peer support has been developed vigorously in both hospital and community settings since 2012. The experience there might be useful in thinking about adapting peer support to Chinese culture. Therefore, Professor Ma visited Hong Kong in August. The organizations she visited included New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, Caritas Hong Kong, Concord Mutual-Aid Club Alliance, the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the Department of Social Work at the University of Hong Kong, to name just a few. People at those organizations provided useful information on successful experiences and lessons learned in the development of peer support services, as well as on the mental health system in Hong Kong and its influence on Mainland China.

Based on the findings of this trip, Professor Ma applied for Yuen Research Funding for Projects in Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area to conduct an exploratory study in Guangzhou to develop and evaluate a peer support program. Compared to the few existing programs in Mainland China, this one deliberately uses a community-based participatory research approach to ensure the involvement of peers and caregivers throughout the process of program development and research. It will produce a series of culturally responsive training manuals and evaluation standards to be used in other parts of China. In the future, when more funding is available, the team would like to systematically integrate the Hong Kong experiences into the picture and to include Chengdu as another site of research.


Zhiying Ma

Assistant Professor, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago