Peer support occurs when people who share a common problem or issue learn together and support one another as they face common challenges. It’s a unique form of service, since the support provided can only be received by those who share similar experiences.1
Why is it important?
In general, youth are more likely to speak to friends, family members or other informal sources rather than to formal sources such as doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists about their problems2 and mental health concerns.3 This is also the case for youth who are experiencing suicidal thoughts.4 Because youth are more likely to open up to peers than adults, peer-to-peer support is an important component of an effective youth suicide prevention plan. Despite the fact that peer support is a relatively new practice in mental health, we know that there are many benefits, including helping at-risk youth feel more positive about themselves, reducing their drug and alcohol use and seeing their relationships improve.5
Peer support groups can also be great outlets for families and parents of children in need.6,7,8 For example, families bereaved by a child’s suicide can benefit from sharing their story with peers who have dealt with similar losses. Peer support helps them feel supported, understood and no longer alone in their pain6. Similarly for parents of children or youth with mental health problems, family peer support reduces isolation through mutual understanding and the potential to create new connections. For anyone, but possibly even more so for parents, peer support can also provide opportunities for shared problem-solving and increased practical knowledge.9 For instance, using the skills of experienced families to support ones that are new to navigating the mental health system is a promising approach to peer support. Parents enrolled in one particular family navigation support program benefited from not only increased emotional support and less stress, but were also able to better access support services as a result of their participation.
What can peer-to-peer support look like in mental health?
Peer support can take a number of different forms in mental health, including both formal and informal strategies. Generally, we think of peer interventions in three categories, all of which are supported by research:10,11
Self-help or peer support groups
- These are voluntary gatherings of people that meet every week or month to share their experiences with similar challenges, while also offering coping strategies and understanding.
- Research shows that these groups help improve coping, self-efficacy and social support, among other benefits.
- These consist of mental health programs in which peer-staff provides support for persons struggling with mental illness based on their own knowledge and experiences of recovery.
- Some examples include peer mentoring, peer case management and drop-in peer support centres.
- More and more, research recognizes the value in this type of peer support as it appears to improve overall quality of life and social support.
Peers as providers of service
- These include certified peer support specialists that experienced recovery from a mental illness and are hired to work on a formal service delivery team. This type of peer support is a particularly interesting option for people who feel disconnected from professionals in conventional services.
- The literature supports that services delivered by peer staff can be just as effective as similar mental health services delivered by non-peer staff (i.e. a staff who doesn’t disclose personal experiences of recovery from mental illness).
- However, researchers have yet to identify the unique value brought by peer staff in conventional services.
How can your community get started?
First, you can get familiar with the knowledge gathered from previous peer support initiatives. Making the Case for Peer Support is a report brought to the Mental Health Commission of Canada that captures the current momentum and context surrounding peer support in mental health. It informs us of the challenges and benefits linked with peer support and provides examples of good peer support practices across Canada.
You may be looking to create space for peers as providers of service as part of your youth suicide prevention, risk-management and postvention efforts. This policy paper includes key considerations that can help maximize your success in integrating peer support in formal service provision.
There are a number of factors to consider when putting together a new peer support program. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has developed a guide to help plan and implement peer-run programs for both youth and families. The Peer Support guide developed by the Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement provides practical tips and guidelines to implement a peer support group in high schools.
Bereaved Families of Ontario facilitates different peer support services for youth and young adults aged 12–24 who are grieving the death of a loved one to homicide, suicide or natural causes.
The Family-to-Family Programs hosted by National Alliance on Mental Illness (Ontario branch) seek to improve the lives of families affected by mental illness through courses and supports groups that have been designed by an experienced family member.
The Family Navigation Project at SunnyBrook is a program developed by families for families to empower families in helping them navigate the mental health system more effectively and efficiently.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada offers a series of relevant resources on peer support.
The Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO) facilitates peer support groups across Ontario.
- 1. Canadian Mental Health Association, 2007
- 2. Sheffield, Fiorenza and Sofronoff, 2004
- 3. Davidson and Manion, 1996
- 4. Hazell & King, 1996
- 5. Buck, 1977
- 6. a. b. Hopmeyer & Werk, 1994
- 7. Shilling et al., 2013
- 8. Shor & Birnbaum, 2012
- 9. Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division, 2007
- 10. Davidson, Chinman, Sills & Rowe, 2006
- 11. O’Hagan, Cyr, McKee and Priest for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2010