There is no one, universally accepted definition of peer support. Sherry Mead offers the following:
"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. When people find affiliation with others they feel are 'like' them, they feel a connection. This connection, or affiliation, is a deep, holistic understanding based on mutual experience where people are able to 'be' with each other without the constraints of traditional (expert/patient) relationships." (Mead, 2001)
Informal peer support has always been provided by friends, family and peers. Formal peer support services have been provided by grassroots community organisations and groups in Victoria for more than 30 years. Over the last 10 years, however, the sharing of lived experience has been increasingly recognised as an integral, complementary part of the recovery journey in mental health. Formal recognition has led to increasing numbers of paid peer support roles and a diverse range of terminology, services, activities, practices, protocols, research and resources. These have been developed by individuals, community and special interest groups, health professionals, government departments and support agencies, all aiming to harness the power of peer support for consumers of mental health services and their families/carers.
Peer support can be provided in a range of ways:
- One-on-one or in a group
- By volunteers or paid employees
- Peer-led or facilitated by a health professional (for example, a psychologist or psychotherapist)
- In person, on the phone or via the internet
- Through workshops or social activities
- In ad hoc or ongoing formats
Each model or variation has merit and can be appropriate for different individuals and at different stages of the recovery process. The Mutual Support and Self Help Consortium led by ARAFEMI are committed to sharing their knowledge and expertise with other organisations who utilise peer support or the sharing of lived experience as part of the recovery process, through the Centre for Excellence in Peer Support.
Below are some personal stories which illustrate a range of peer support formats and how the benefits it can provide.
At 45, Chris was made redundant, and is now socially isolated. He has a history of depression and anxiety, which has led to alcohol addiction and and hoarding. His PHaMs (Personal Helpers and Mentors program) peer support worker, Maria, is supporting him rejoin his local community by accompanying him to sessions at the Men’s Shed and linking him to substance dependency counsellors. She is also assisting Chris to create a new life by ‘decluttering’.
Maria, Chris’s PHaMs peer support worker, had an undiagnosed learning disability. This led to her leaving school at 14 and becoming homeless. She became severely depressed, attempted suicide and was hospitalised. When she was linked to an outreach worker and community house network, Maria was diagnosed with dyslexia and she was able to restart her education. Later, she wanted to support others who had had similar experiences.