The Healing Circles Project: Building Peer-led Mental Health Supports

Community, Peer Support, Growth

What are Healing Circles?

Healing circles supported by Repair are cohorts of 5-7 people who commit to meet regularly, and to support each other in working through and living with trauma, grief, physical and mental illnesses, stress and various life challenges. Group members talk and share, and also use art, play, writing and various exercises to help stimulate and advance efforts to heal.

Healing circles are entirely peer-led, with no one playing the role of a clinician or social service professional, and with no costs or fees associated with participating. The healing circles operate with basic ground-rules intended to protect confidentiality, and to encourage group members to interact respectfully and supportively.

In preparation for building a more permanent and expansive program to support the existence of  more healing circles, and to pilot-test our model, Repair co-director and co-founder, Beth Ribet, launched a first healing circle in summer of 2017, with ongoing analysis and documentation of the circle and its growth still in-progress.

“Through my healing circle, I’ve been able to find safe space in which I can be myself. I’ve never had that experience in a group or community space before. It’s opened up the possibility of building some really meaningful relationships. The healing circle makes me feel rejuvenated!”

- Christa

Why Healing Circles? What Needs Do They Meet?

The future of healthcare in the United States is in contention in federal and state governments, and while this debate continues, millions of people in the U.S. remain under-insured, un-insured, or have complex healthcare needs that are only partially met by healthcare providers. An abundance of studies in public health and medicine tell us that mental health challenges are commonplace in the United States. We also know well from a variety of academic sources and governmental and industry reports that most people who need mental health care either don’t receive it at all, or receive significantly less care than they need in order to feel better, manage symptoms, and in some instances to be safe and survive. 2017 data addressing access to mental healthcare indicates that nearly 20% of people with mental illness in the United States are entirely uninsured, and that over 50% of adults with mental illness, including those with insurance, received no mental health care in the past year.1 Even among those seeking and securing care, over 20% report that their mental health care needs are still substantially unmet, whether because financial obstacles disrupt treatment, because of limitations in the skill sets of available providers, or because of other barriers built into the structure of mental health coverage in the United States.2

For youth, immigrants and refugees, women and girls, persons with disabilities, people in poverty, and people of color -- there are often additional barriers to getting stable, high-quality healthcare of all forms, including mental healthcare. When people don’t get the support and care we need, the harmful consequences are numerous, and include deterioration of families, increased rates of substance abuse, increased likelihood of being arrested and incarcerated, inability to maintain employment, and decreased survival chances and life expectancy. Untreated mental health issues place tremendous strain on a person’s immune system, neurology, and vulnerability to many forms of physical illness, such that depression, anxiety and traumatic stress can increase the likelihood of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and vulnerability to cancer.

Community-level peer-led groups such as the Repair healing circles shouldn’t have to be a full substitute or replacement for other forms of healthcare provided by trained practitioners. Ideally, peer support resources should be a valued complement to primary forms of care, and people dealing with stress, trauma, or mental illness should have access to all the resources needed to be safe and to heal. But many people in the U.S. are aware and deeply concerned about the fact that we are likely years away from having a well-functioning, accessible, and reliably funded healthcare system, that lives are being lost in the meantime, and quality of life is compromised for so many individuals and families.

We need rapid solutions that help to reduce the damage caused by deprivation of healthcare, and give people in local communities more tools to protect our health and help each other heal, survive, and potentially thrive and support others, until the time when healthcare is recognized and fully protected as a basic human right!

The healing circle model has a number of advantages, including:

  • Flexibility: Healing circles can adapt to the needs and priorities of their members, and can also be convened to serve particular communities, such as LGBT people of color, working and poverty-class youth, exploited women and girls, male survivors of sexual violence, cancer survivors, people with incarcerated family members, people living with chronic pain, or refugee communities. The balance of talk, art, play, and other approaches to healing can change over time, depending on what works well for those involved.  
  • Cost-effectiveness: Our healing circle model is free to participants, and with minimal or no required costs for materials and supplies. Materials, guides and information we intend to provide to people who want to build a healing circle are not expensive to produce. We can also teach, support, and mentor people who want to learn to convene and facilitate healing circles very inexpensively, generally for less than $1000 per person, encompassing about 8 months of direct support. Once people learn how to participate in and form healing circles, the impact expands, as each healing circle leader or facilitator can reach out to more people, and form one or more new circles, and can potentially support and mentor others in learning to do so as well. Starting in Southern California, and eventually expanding in and out of state, we welcome the chance to help build a movement of grassroots health resources that can support vulnerable and traumatized people and communities nation-wide.
  • Community Control and Empowerment: The continual shifts in access to healthcare resources through programs like Medicaid, federally supported insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, and employer-provided healthcare resources in our current economy result in many people feeling insecure about being able to rely on or use healthcare when we need it. Having a healing circle, or learning to build one, gives individuals control over at least one vital resource that can support health, and the ability to share that resource with others. Getting to have a little more control over one’s opportunities to healing can - by itself -- be healing! That is, becoming active in addressing community health crises and emergencies by creating a useful, local resource, and having the experience of making choices to support one’s own healing, and to help others heal can be a powerful and empowering experience. It can help remedy the feeling of being relatively powerless about health and healthcare, which then helps to reduce stress and anxiety, and to provoke more hope and optimism about community-based solutions to urgent health problems.

“My experiences with trauma left me isolated and disconnected from myself and from so much around me. It was also incredibly difficult to find support resources that were accessible and affordable. The healing circle has supported me in everything from learning to be more present in the world to getting on my feet financially. It has been beautiful to witness and be witnessed in this way by my peers.”

- Navneet

What Do We Want to Do? How Can You Help? What Can We Offer Partners and Donors?

Supporting New Healers: Repair is seeking donors and funding partners to help us launch our initial training and mentoring program, for people who want to learn to organize and build healing circles in their local communities and neighborhoods, or as part of their work as staff in other organizations, in Southern California. We have already been documenting and synthesizing the lessons learned from our initial pilot efforts at building healing circles on a purely volunteer basis, and are ready and excited to share and support others in using our model, and adapting and building on it in creative ways suited to particular populations and needs.

Our workshop curriculum includes 6 modules:

  • introducing the healing circle model and understanding its possibilities and limits, and relationships to other resources, including mental and physical healthcare, crisis and emergency resources, community and spiritual resources, and other peer-led resources such as 12-step groups
  • approaches to convening a new circle,
  • participant safety, ground-rules and boundaries,
  • tools and activities,
  • working through conflict or challenges within the group,
  • changing and growing over time, including as members leave and enter a circle    

Beginning in 2020-2021, we plan to initiate a series of workshops for our first cohort of interested future “healers” who we will identify and screen to help ensure that those participating have the time, stability, emotional readiness, and commitment to work with us over approximately 8 months (and beyond in some instances), and have connections to various vulnerable communities and populations. We will then build new healing circles comprised of the workshop recipients. Repair staff experienced in healing circle participation and leadership will initially participate directly in new circles as facilitators, and then as supportive observers and mentors, and then will “phase out” to allow healing circle participants to develop their own experience without Repair mentors, though our staff will remain available to support and consult as needed. After several months, we’ll reconvene our initial workshop participants to review and learn from each person’s experience, and to support our “healers” in launching new circles from the ground up, and potentially in mentoring others.   

Want to Become a Healer?

If you think you might like to participate in training and mentoring to learn to build a healing circle, or if you just want the opportunity to join a healing circle, please complete our intake form here.

1. 2017 State of Mental Health in America- Access to Care Data, compiled by Mental Health America; For 2016 findings, also see Center for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, National Healthcare Surveys, available at:
2. Id