What is Peer Mentorship

Put simply, peer support or peer mentoring is the support patients provide to their peers. Peer support is based on a relationship between people who have a lived experience in common. In this case, the experience that individuals or groups have in common with addiction, mental health challenge or illness. This common experience might be relative to their own mental health or that of a loved one (in the case of family peer support).

Peer support can happen in both group and one-to-one relationships. In either scenario, the peer mentor provides emotional and social support to others who share a common experience.

This support is grounded in hope, empowerment, and recovery. It is valued for its authenticity because the supporter has also lived through a similar experience and has found their way to a path of recovery.

The empathy, understanding, and acquired skill of the peer mentor, coupled with their willingness to be open about their own experience, demonstrates their belief that a path for improving one’s life can be created.

“Peer support is a system of giving and receiving help founded on key principles of respect, shared responsibility, and mutual agreement of what is helpful. Peer support is not based on psychiatric models and diagnostic criteria. It is about understanding another’s situation empathically through the shared experience of emotional and psychological pain.”
(Mead, Hilton, & Curtis, 2001, p. 135).

Peer support can and does happen in many different ways and in many different settings. Some relationships are quite informal and tend more towards a supportive friendship while others may be a part of a paid position within a workplace or clinical setting.

The Philosophy & Principles of Peer Support
  • The philosophy of peer support is that each individual has within themselves the knowledge of what is best for them and a strong desire to find a path towards improved health.
  • Peer mentors help others find that knowledge and hope within themselves.
  • Peer support is based on mutual equality in relationships. No person is more important. Power imbalances are minimized. Each person can benefit from the relationship.
  • Self-determination and person-centeredness is highly valued. Persons with lived experience are seen as experts in their own lives. They have the capability of making the decisions in their lives that affect them.
  • Peer support is focused on health and strengths rather than illness and diagnosed.
  • Families of PWLE can benefit from peer support as they determine their relationship and life with their loved one. Their own recovery may involve great acceptance, confidence and trust in their loved one as well as themselves.
  • In all types of peer support relationships, empathetic understanding and experiential learning are shared in a non-judgemental and supportive manner.
The Value of Peer Mentoring

The path of recovery for a person with a mental health/addiction challenge or illness may include a variety of options such as bio-medical treatments, talk therapy, and/or social support, but accessing these therapeutic and support services can sometimes be challenging. This challenge may require a level of initiative, determination and/or understanding of a complex system that some may find to be difficult.

Peer support is an additional option that complements other forms of treatment. It can be a consolidating factor in that all aspects of a person’s journey are considered.

Peer support may result in a renewed effort towards striving for the right treatment mix (for oneself or their loved one), navigating the social service landscape, and gaining the self-confidence to advocate for themselves (or their family member). Peer support can help individuals progress towards regaining stability and a greater sense of wellness.

A peer mentor who has traveled a path of recovery can relate and offer empathy and validation, which offers the peer hope, a key determinant to recovery.

As partners, parents or close supporters, family peer supporters travel a different journey. They model hopefulness through a healthy sense of acceptance and emotional readiness to progress forward.

Peer support can also address social isolation. Isolation can impede recovery and increase chances of relapse. For family members, there may be a tendency to ‘keep the secret’ within the family. This is neither helpful nor healthy.

Peer support could help to break down the stigma of mental illness. Stigma is cited as a primary reason why people do not seek treatments for mental illness/addiction or encourage their loved ones to do so. Stigma can be dispelled when one person who is well says to another who is struggling, “I have it too” or “Someone I love has it too.” Peer mentors with valid experience, skills, aptitude, and high ethics provide valuable contributions to the communities in which we work and live.

©2014 PSACC National Certification Handbook – Version 2.

Origins of Peer Support

The earliest known peer support group in mental health was the Lunatic Friends’ Society established in England around 1845. Some peer-run groups also formed in Germany in the late nineteenth century, which protested on involuntary confinement laws. In addition to this, a number of individuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries publicized their protests about their treatment in autobiographies and petitions.

The most well-developed peer support network was established in 1937. Alcoholics Anonymous has spread to every country and its twelve-step method has been adapted for other addictions and for mental health problems. Also in 1937, an American psychiatrist called Abraham Low established Recovery Inc (now Recovery International) which uses cognitive behavioral techniques in a peer group setting. It currently supports 600 groups across North America. GROW, a 12 step program was started by a priest in Australia in 1957, has also spread to many countries. These forms of peer support are all apolitical.

A new brand of peer support and advocacy in mental health emerged out of the international consumer/survivor movement which began in the early 1970s, around the same time as the civil rights movement, gay rights, the women’s movement, and indigenous movements. All these movements have in common the experience of oppression and the quest for self-determination. The new brand of peer support was initiated by peers themselves and was based on a critical perspective of psychiatry and society, rather than just the need to “reform.”

The consumer/survivor movement exists mainly in democratic countries. It has changed in the past 40 years from a small, unfunded, radical movement to a larger, more diverse and diffuse collection of people. The movement originally worked independently of the mental health system on two main fronts – peer support and political action. In peer support, people aim to change themselves and recover from their experiences. In political action, people aim to change the people and systems that affect their well-being. The first Canadian peer support service, the Mental Patients Association was established in 1971 in Vancouver. Since then Ontario has developed more independent funded peer support services than other provinces.

In the last decade or two many consumers/survivors have also taken up new opportunities to work within the mental health and addiction service system. It could be argued that we are in the third wave of development in peer support – the use of peer support within mainstream mental health services, where peers are contracted or employed, usually to provide one-to-one support for people using the service. This development gives new opportunities for the growth and funding of peer support. Peer support may look different in different environments, yet these developments may also enable peer support to become more accepted in the mental health system as a whole.

© 2015 Mental Health Rights Coalition