Peer support is based on the belief that people who have faced, endured, and overcome adversity can offer useful support, encouragement, hope, and perhaps mentorship to others facing similar situations (Davidson et al 2006). Peer support in mental health has received significant attention over the last number of years as mental health services have attempted to move away from the dominant medical approach. According to Davidson et al (1999) three broad levels of peer support exist:

  1. Informal (naturally occurring) peer support
  2. Peers participating in consumer or peer-run programmes (such as within charities and non-governmental organisations).
  3. The employment of consumers/service users as providers of services and supports within traditional services. These are often referred to as peer support workers.

After engagement with these eLearning materials you will

  • be able to understand the concept of peer support and the different levels of peer support that are available.
  • be able to understand the philosophy underpinning the concept of peer support.
  • be able understand how they can facilitate engagement with peer support by families of people with a mental health problem.

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is an organization that is neither a part of a government nor a conventional for-profit business. Usually set up by ordinary citizens, NGOs may be funded by governments, foundations, businesses, or private persons. They are difficult to define and work in many different areas. According to Thara and Patel (2010:389) Non-Governmental Organizations are institutions, recognized by governments as non-profit or welfare oriented, which play a key role as advocates, service providers, activists and researchers on a range of issues pertaining to human and social development. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have played a significant role in the last few decades in not only helping bridge this gap, but also by creating low cost replicable models of care. NGOs are active in a wide array of areas such as child mental health, schizophrenia and psychotic conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, dementia etc. Their activities have included treatment, rehabilitation, community care, research, training and capacity building, awareness and lobbying. For many NGOs operating in the mental health arena, peer support is central to their mission.

  1. Search the Internet for non-governmental organizations which support people with mental health problems in your area.
  2. What services do the NGOs provide?
  3. What services do they provide specifically for the family of people who experience Mental distress?

Repper (2013) states that peer support is underpinned by the following core principles:

  • Mutual
  • Reciprocity
  • Non directive
  • Recovery focused
  • Strengths based
  • Inclusive
  • Progressive
  • Safe

The above concepts are discussed in more detail in Repper's (2013) report Peer Support Workers: Theory and Practice (Pages 8 and 9). Spend some time reviewing the core principles; how do these attitudes and principles differ to the medical model of mental distress? You can revisit the medical model and watch some videos about it here.

There are many differences between the two approaches; some of the main ones are listed below:

Thinking about the peer support organisations that you discovered during Activity I , how might mental health professionals encourage families to engage with the organisations in their area?

Read this position paper about peer support workers from the Queensland Voice for Mental Health and consider the question that follows.

Critical thinking question

With the World Health Organisation suggesting that approximately 1 in 4 people will experience mental distress at some point in their life, it is likely the many mental health professionals will have experienced a mental health problem. How do individuals who are employed within mental health services who have experienced mental distress differ from peer support workers?

Further reading

Below are some links to research articles about peer support and peer support workers. You can peruse the abstracts; you may have access to the full text depending on local copyright rules.

Author Link
Mead et al (2001) Peer Support: A Theoretical Perspective
Eysenbach et al (2004) Health related virtual communities and electronic support groups: systematic review of the effects of online peer to peer interactions.
Adame & Leitner (2008) Breaking Out of the Mainstream: The Evolution of Peer Support Alternatives to the Mental Health System
Davidson et al (2006) Peer support among adults with serious mental illness: a report from the field
Mead & MacNeil (2004) Peer support: What makes it unique?
Lawn et al (2008) Mental health peer support for hospital avoidance and early discharge: An Australian example of consumer driven and operated service
Verhaeghe et al (2008) Stigmatization and self-esteem of persons in recovery from mental illness: the role of peer support
Repper & Carter (2011) A review of the literature on peer support in mental health services
Davidson et al (2012) Peer support among persons with severe mental illnesses: a review of evidence and experience

The concept of peer support has gained increased importance over recent years and fits well into the idea of recovery orientated services. However, they are often seen as being secondary to 'traditional' mental health services. Mental health professionals working with service users and their families need to be aware of the peer support opportunities available in the areas that they work as well encouraging participation by service users and families for mutual and social support.

Davidson, L., Bellamy, C., Guy, K. & Miller, B (1999) Peer support among persons with severe mental illnesses: a review of evidence and experience. World Psychiatry 11, 123-128.

Davidson, L., Chinman, M., Sells, D. & Rowe, M. (2006) Peer Support Among Adults With Serious Mental Illness: A Report From the Field. Schizophrenia Bulletin 32 (3), 443 - 450.

Queensland Voice for Mental Health Inc. (2012) Consumer Role Position Paper. Available at http://qldvoice.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Consumer_Role_Position_Paper_June-2012.pdf accessed 14th October 2015.

Repper J. (2013) Peer Support Workers: Theory and Practice. Centre for Mental Health and Mental Health Network, NHS Confederation.

Thara, R. & Patel, V. (2010) Role of non-governmental organizations in mental health in India. Indian Journal of Psychiatry 52, S389 - 395.

The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.