Peer support

Peer support

Peer support

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 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 Ireland.

A number of our Mental Health Associations offer Peer Support to people in their communities. Two such organisations are Dublin based Gateway Mental Health Association and Tipperary based Áras Folláin Mental Health Association – see Local Associations for details.

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:

Types of Peer Support

Peer Listening
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.

Peer Education
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
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.

Peer Mentoring
One example of a this would be a ‘buddy’ system or befriending 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.

Peer Mediation
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. We continue to be involved in a number of projects providing, promoting and evaluating Peer Support related to mental health.

Self-management

The study ‘Exploring Peer Support as an Approach to Supporting Self Management, Scotland 2010-2011‘ 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.

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