What is Peer Support?
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
Real life experience
When I was sectioned and admitted onto an acute psychiatric ward I felt really distressed, desperate, scared and alone. It was the other patients on the ward that really helped me to feel a little bit better. Knowing that these other people were experiencing some of the same things as me really helped, I didn’t feel so alone. There was a sense of camaraderie amongst us, and though we were all dealing with being really unwell, we were able to look out for each other and just be there in that moment, offering unspoken understanding and support. I didn’t realise at the time that this is known as peer support. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened naturally on a human level, with people just reaching out in their time of need and other people responding.
There was something so different about connecting to someone who was equal to me, where everything was on a level and no-one had more power than the other. In hospital I felt as though I was at the mercy of the staff, that they made all the decisions and had all the control. I felt as though I couldn’t ever be completely at ease or open and honest. With other patients on the ward there was a level of understanding which didn’t need to be explained, we had a sense of just knowing a bit of what each other was going through. The only problem with this sort of peer support was that other patients, myself included, were not always in the right place to offer support to others.
I think having peer support workers on the acute wards I was on would have really helped as they would have brought with them the same level of understanding and empathy, but would have been in a better place themselves to be able to offer the support reliably.