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.
Peer support is generally understood to be a relationship of mutual support where people with similar life experiences offer each other support especially as they move through difficult of challenging experiences.
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)
Peer support exists in many different forms in mental health. The informal sharing of experiences and knowledge between people using services is not new. Similarly peer support between people with shared experiences in self-help and mutual support groups is well established. What is new, thought, is the relation of specific peer roles (paid and unpaid) in mental health services and organisations to support people in their recovery.
While these different forms of peer support have common foundations they differ in the extent to which the roles are formalised. The process of formalising the naturally occurring peer relationships brings opportunities and challenges. These challenges can be addressed and opportunities enhanced by care planning and by remaining true to the underlying principles and values of peer support.
“The essence of peer support begins with informal and naturally occurring support, which is also normally the bedrock of service user groups. In essence service users use their own knowledge and expertise to help both themselves and others. This help has the authenticity of being rooted in personal experience, which is acknowledged as the most powerful and effective way of learning. As peer support becomes more structured and organised, it can become more focused and helpful but care must be taken that its essence is not lost within these more formal and professional structures. (Faulkner and Basset, 2010)”