Peer support is where people with shared experiences come together in a mutual and empowering relationship to learn from each other and progress on their journeys. There are lots of different kinds of peer support and it certainly isn’t limited to mental health. It can be found in education, in other forms of health care and in drug and alcohol recovery services.
Peer support in mental health can be formal or informal. Formal peer support takes the form of arranged groups, lived experience peer support roles in NHS services or in other public or voluntary sector services including service user led organisations. Informal peer support happens when people meet naturally in the community, find they have shared experiences of mental health and build relationships to support each other.
All forms of peer support have some things in common. Firstly, it’s a mutual relationship where both (or all, in groups) bring something to the table. There is a recognition people have something to offer, wherever they are on their recovery journey. Expertise by experience is given great value. The relationship and shared experiences of people can address common experiences in mental health, such as disempowerment, stigma and low confidence. Peer support provides connections with others who have experienced similar adversity, hope that things might improve on their journey and can support people in finding empowerment.
Peer support can occur on a one to one basis or in groups. One to one peer support, when not a friendship, is often intentional peer support. This means that the two people have identified goals on their recovery journey and are moving towards them together.
Peer support groups can be much more fluid. People can attend just to connect with each other, or can be active group members. There is usually at least one facilitator and all facilitators have lived experience. Peer support groups are different to clinical treatment groups in that the expertise lies in the group members shared experiences rather than in a professional role.
The main benefits of peer support are that people can:
- Connect with others with shared experiences to reduce isolation and self-stigma
- Learn about themselves and others on their recovery journeys
- Feel empowered to make decisions or move towards recovery goals that previously may have seemed out of reach
- Experience hope in seeing others progress alongside them
- Feel they have something to offer and value, wherever they are in their recovery journey