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How the Team of Peer Support Project is Combating Loneliness
& Creating a More Inclusive Society

Traditionally, people suffering from mental illnesses are pushed out into the outskirts of life and excluded from social participation. Their interactions with the outside world tend to be fractured, hence leading to loneliness and inability to establish friendships and lead normal lives. The team of the Peer Support Project has been working on a solution to help people with mental illnesses to overcome the stigmas ever present in our society.


At the core of the Project is the “peer support” concept, when people who dealt with similar mental illness issues are invited for one-on-one case work, serving as inspiration and role models. By helping mentally disabled people to deal with heavy discrimination, we help not just them but all of us by understanding what it is to be members of a community.

tearing down the barriers of mental illnesses

[ what is peer support? ]

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Peer support trainee

“Peer support helps me understand ‘empowerment.’ It is to let people (with mental illness)
believe that they are capable.”

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The members of the community-based participatory research (CBPR) group

The training of peer support candidates

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meet the team


Zhiying Ma, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor at the Crown Family
School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice,
University of Chicago

As the Principal Investigator, Prof. Ma oversees the project’s design, overall implementation,
data analysis, promotion, and scaling up.

Liang Zhou, Ph.D.

Professor; Director of the Department of Community Mental Health, Affiliated Brain Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University; Deputy Dean of the School of Mental Health, Guangzhou Medical University
As the supervisor of the project team in China, Prof. Zhou supervises the research design and implementation.

Dr. Xuyuan Chen

Community psychiatrist and public health researcher
Dr. Chen participates in the
project design and manages the project’s
overall implementation in China.

Wang Jiali, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral scholar at the Crown Family
School of Social Work, Policy, and
Practice, University of Chicago

Dr. Wang is focused on the randomized control trial's quality control, data management, and data analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of peer support services.

Zhen Ni

Project manager, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy
and Practice

Mr. Ni is responsible for project monitoring, reporting, and offering support for disability-related empowerment work.

Guanwen Xu

As one of the coordinators in China, Mr. Xu is responsible for coordinating with stakeholders, conducting qualitative research, and overseeing research interns.

Yalan Qin

A second-year master student at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice
As a project assistant. Yalan provides support for the training and supervision of peer supporters.

[ goals for project's phase 2 ]

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The first project coordination meeting with the four participating social work agencies


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Principal Investigator

Zhiying Ma

What do you feel most passionate about working on this Project?

I feel the most passionate about working on this project for its potential to revolutionize mental healthcare in China. For many years, mental healthcare in China, especially for those diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, has been based in psychiatric hospitals, dominated by professionals, focused on managing symptoms, and distributed unevenly across the country. Through having people with mental illness provide support to others in the community, we are pushing mental healthcare to be more community-based, more attentive to the needs and experiences of its users, more empowering for this marginalized group, and potentially more widespread and equitably distributed throughout the country.

What was the biggest challenge you had to find a way to tackle?

This project is humongous. It involves many different parties. We are working with the psychiatric hospital that oversees community mental healthcare in Guangzhou, four social work agencies, dozens of peer supporters, hundreds of their clients, and the family members of these providers and recipients of peer support. Fortunately, my long-term relationships with many of the organizational partners provided the trust necessary to get the project started. There are some key movers—such as Prof. Zhou, Dr. Chen, and a few senior social workers in the agencies—who are very resourceful and responsible, who have gone above and beyond to make sure that the project is implemented to the highest standard. Importantly, the generous support from the Cyrus Tang Foundation allowed us to do this ambitious project and to hire full-time coordinators to help align all these moving parts.

Would You Like to Know More
About the Project?

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