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 shared personal experience and empathy, it focuses on an individual’s strengths not weaknesses, and works towards the individual’s wellbeing and recovery.
Self help groups and mutual support has been around for many years, although the term peer support is relatively new. 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 mental health 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 happens in a variety of group work situations, where individuals support other through using empathic understanding and sharing life experience to support others and at the same time themselves.
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 amongst others: