Peer Support: A Primer

Peer support is emotional and practical support between two people who share a common experience, such as a mental health challenge or illness. A Peer Supporter has lived through that similar experience, and is trained to support others.

Peer supporters listen, provide emotional support and, most importantly, inspire hope.

At its most basic level, peers are people who have a degree of equality with each other. This equality may come through having shared experiences, backgrounds or characteristics. You may be able to think of some examples in your own life. Perhaps you play five-a-side football regularly with the same group of people, or you may have just had your first baby and have joined a support group, or you may have campaigned on a local issue with your neighbours.

The following definitions provide a comprehensive understanding of Peer Support:

‘Peer support is an emotional support, frequently coupled with instrumental support, which is mutually offered or provided by persons having a mental health condition to others sharing a similar mental health condition to bring about a desired social or personal change.’ (Gartner and Reisman, 1982)

‘…a system of giving and receiving help founded on the key principles of respect, shared responsibility, and a mutual agreement of what is helpful.’ (Mead et al, 2001)

‘Through the process of offering support, companionship, empathy, sharing and assistance…feelings of loneliness, rejection, discrimination and frustration…are countered.’ (Stroul, 1993)

The idea that people who have had similar mental health experiences can offer each other support is not new. The nature of mental health issues means it can be harder for people who have not been there to really have the same degree of understanding and empathy as someone who has experienced similar issues. This was described well in a 2008 report from Highland Users Group:

‘The knowledge that we have been through similar experiences can create an immediate bond and sense of trust that we cannot find elsewhere. We find that we can be more open to each other in ways that we may not with professionals or other people who haven’t experienced mental illness.

We often feel that when we are in the company of fellow users we will be free of stigma, and that the judgemental attitudes we sometimes experience from others will be absent.

We find that we don’t have to explain ourselves as an understanding of what we have been through already exists. We often mentioned the cliché, ‘We’ve been there, done that, got the T- shirt’ which, to most of us, explains it all.’ (Highland Users Group, 2008)