What is Peer Support?

“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)

Peer support is a supportive relationship grounded in the principles of mutuality, empathy, and connection. Peer support harnesses the personal lived experience of a difficult life situation to create a mutually supportive relationship.

Peer support is a paradigm shift away from a clinical focus. It is grounded in connection and takes a horizontal approach to support.

Peer support is about making sense of one’s own pain, and channeling that experience empathically to walk alongside, acknowledge, connect with, and support someone else who also understands the pain of a mental health, substance use, and/or trauma issue.

Peer support services are diverse and adaptable to serve many demographics. However, there are commonalities in all types of peer support service delivery. Peer support services are:

  • Always voluntary & self-directed
  • Based on a shared lived experience
  • Rooted in hope
  • Relationship based (not clinical)
  • Recovery focused
  • Grounded in the action of moving toward wholeness, rather than away from illness
  • Different from peer-delivered services, which are services delivered by someone with lived experience but not necessarily rooted in relationship-based connections, which is essential to peer support.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the BC Healthy Minds Healthy Campuses document A Guide to Peer Support Programs on Post-Secondary Campuses defines peer support this way:

Peer support involves at least two individuals with a shared or similar experience, engaging in a relationship for the development and growth of both parties. Two defining factors of peer support are an independence from societal stigma and professional authorities. Most peer support groups address societal stigma by sharing personal stories that validate an individual’s experience as normal or understandable. Often these groups are formed around a specific issue or shared challenge, such as marginalization based on race or sexual orientation. These groups tend to focus on interacting with and improving the social structure that oppresses them.

Regardless of the identity of its members, peer support groups almost always focus on anti-labelling and the empowerment of marginalized persons. Peer support is similar to other forms of support, such as self-help, professional consultation, and social networks, but differs in that it offers members of a community the opportunity to connect with others who have similar experiences and learn from them directly.


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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