Peer Support may be defined as the help and support that people with lived experience of a mental illness or a learning disability are able to give to one another.
It may be social, emotional or practical support but importantly this support is mutually offered and reciprocal, allowing peers to benefit from the support whether they are giving or receiving it.
Key elements of Peer Support in mental health include that it is built on shared personal experience and empathy, it focuses on an individual's strengths not weaknesses, and works towards the individual's wellbeing and recovery.
Though the language of peer support is relatively new in the UK, in practice self-help groups and mutual support has been around for many years. In Canada and the USA, Peer Support in its various forms has been a widely recognised and utilised resource that has been developing since the 1960s. In recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on the value of peer support in the UK.
Research has shown that peer-run self-help groups yield improvement in psychiatric symptoms resulting in decreased hospitalisation, larger social support networks and enhanced self-esteem and social functioning.
The benefits of Peer Support
The benefits of Peer Support are wide ranging for those receiving the support, peer-support workers themselves, and for the mental health system as a whole. One of the key benefits of Peer Support is the greater perceived empathy and respect that peer supporters are seen to have for the individuals they support.
Peer Support also has benefits for peer support workers themselves, increasing levels of self-esteem, confidence and positive feelings that they are doing good. Peer-support workers often experience an increase in their own ability to cope mental health problems.
Peer Support also benefits the health system as a whole as it can lead to decrease in hospital admissions for those taking part.
Who can benefit from Peer Support?
Peer-support programmes have been developed to such an extent that peer supporters, with adequate training, can help their peers with the following issues:
- bereavement / divorce
- relationship problems
- and many other mental health conditions
Types of Peer Support
A peer supporter who offers a listening service is a person who has been trained in counselling skills that include active listening, verbal and non-verbal communication, confidentiality and problem solving. Peer supporters who have completed certain training may then go on to offer support to their peers on a formal basis.
This involves peers educating peers on specific topics, such as coping with depression, anxiety or addiction. This will generally include a group of peers of similar age, status and background to the people to whom they are delivering material.
Peer tutoring is a model whereby a peer supporter aids a peer, whether of the same age or younger, with his or her academic and social learning. The support offered by the peer tutor can be cross-curricular and take the form of paired reading or paired writing.
One example of a this would be a 'buddy' system in which people who have received certain training are attached to a new group and act as a friend, mentor and guide to ease people into a new environment, eg a school, hospital.
Another aspect of peer mentoring is that of a positive role model, involving a long-term commitment between the mentor and mentee.The peer mentor is linked to a mentee and has the role of befriender, listener and mediator.
Conflict resolution is another name for peer mediation. Peer mediators are trained specifically in conflict resolution skills.They help people find solutions to disputes in formal and informal situations. It is unusual to find an organisation adopting just a peer mediation model, though such a model is often part of a fuller peer-support programme.
Our Work with Peer Support
We have been involved in developing Peer Support for a number of years, especially through research with those participating in Peer Support services. We continue to be involved in a number of projects providing, promoting and evaluating Peer Support related to mental health.
Right Here, England and Northern Ireland, 2009 - present
The Right Here programme is a five-year collaboration between us and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The aim of the programme is to improve the wellbeing and mental health of young people aged 16 - 25 through the participation of this age group in developing new and innovative interventions in mental health. Peer Support is an integral part of each of the four Right Here projects (in County Fermanagh, Brighton and Hove, Newham and Sheffield) where young people are designing and delivering a wide range of targeted and general mental health support to their peers.
Exploring Peer Support as an Approach to Supporting Self-management, Scotland, 2010 - 2011
This study aimed to explore Peer Support as an approach to support self-management and to assess the potential for formalised Peer Support to be developed for people with long term conditions. The study found that those who participated demonstrated passionate support for the unique added benefits that Peer Support can bring to those living with long term conditions and the professionals who support them.
Developing Peer Support for Long Term Conditions, Lothian and Lanarkshire, 2011 - 2012
The Mental Health Foundation, along with partner organisations, is leading the Delivering Peer Support for Long Term Conditions project to take forward the recommendations from the feasibility study above. Project activities include:
- 'Peer Support - Making it Happen' - a free one day training course aimed at planners, commissioners and service leads to act as a primer for the development of peer-support services for people with long term conditions
- 'Peer Support - Principles in Practice' - a free two-day training course aimed at current and prospective providers of Peer Support services to enhance the quality of support received
- Two nationwide networking events
- Peer-support guidance to assist with the development and delivery of Peer Support services
- An online information resource.
Self-management for People with a Severe Psychiatric Diagnosis, Wales, 2009 - 2012
We worked in partnership with MDF, the Bipolar Organisation and Cardiff University on the first initiative of its kind in the UK. The Foundation developed and delivered self-management and Peer Support, recruiting service user trainers from across Wales, and people who attended the self-management courses, to become Peer Support group mentors. The Foundation trained over six hundred people and developed Peer Support groups across the country. The group members support each other to set goals and overcome the problems that make achieving those goals more difficult. Similar initiatives are being developed for people in prisons and single parents (Wales), and young Black men, women, and people in supported housing (England).
Self-help for People with Dementia, London, 2012 - 2014
In collaboration with Housing 21, a social housing provider, we are to run and evaluate facilitated self-help, peer-support groups for people in early stages of dementia and their partners living in extra care and sheltered housing schemes in London. The aim of the project is to find out if these groups enable people to live independently for longer, improve their quality of life and reduce social isolation. It is a two-year project that started in February 2012.