The Benefits and Considerations of Establishing Peer Support

In 2005, with the help of a local midwife, I established a peer support group for pregnant women suffering with stress, depression and anxiety. Back then, it was estimated that around one in 10 pregnant women were suffering with ante-natal depression and other types of poor mental health in pregnancy; I had been one of them (you can read my story here).

Every month, our group would gather, drink tea and talk, sometimes with a guest speaker who would offer top tips and guidance on a theme. It wasn’t complicated, we had a simple referral system, and all women (and a chosen ally if they wanted), needed to do was turn up, and “be”. It ran for two years, and I think every single person who spoke to me about it, said it was invaluable. The reason being, they said, because it helped them know they weren’t alone.

I later joined a well known mental health charity and facilitated their peer mentoring service. This was a one-to-one opportunity for people suffering with poor mental health to establish and achieve a goal, within a 12 week window with someone who understood stress, depression and anxiety. We regularly received positive feedback from our clients that this type of encouragement at that point in their journey to recovery, made a real difference.

Having spent nearly two decades in a therapeutic setting which included supporting grieving people, I was then asked to travel the country to teach people how to set up bereavement support groups.

Guests attending the workshops were diverse in age, heritage, jobs, interests and experiences, with one thing in common – they’d suffered the loss of someone they loved. Every person who attended the training expressed how having the opportunity to share with like-minded people, reassured them that what they were thinking, feeling and experiencing, to some extent, was ‘normal’, and that they’d find their way forward in time.

This is why peer support matters. In a world where we are trying to do more with less, finding ways to reach out to and support people, in simple but meaningful ways, matters.

Your [peer support] sessions were amazing. I loved Thursdays when I saw you. Thank you.

Pregnancy Mental Health Peer Support Group Attendee

What is Peer Support?

Essentially, there are two types of peer support; formal and informal.

Formal peer support may be provided by an agency or charity that has been funded to provide a specific service with an agreed outcome. It might be in a group setting, or provided 1-1. A facilitator may be present who is perhaps a qualified counsellor, coach or support worker, or trained in a specialist topic. In a group setting, their role is not to (eg) provide therapy, just to ensure best practice in running these types of groups. There are normally agreed numbers who attend, who may have been through a referral process and who then support each other, over an agreed period. To some extent, it has a defined beginning, middle and an end.

Informal peer support is that which still meets the needs of a group of people but it’s not working towards a specific outcome (e.g. to satisfy funders). It might be open-ended, running every week with no ‘end’ date, and open to anyone who wants to come along. It doesn’t necessarily need anyone qualified to run it, it might be a friendly discussion or activity based; things like regular coffee mornings or book clubs held, and definitely what my first group supporting pregnant ladies was all about.

Both types of support may be held in a relaxed setting, ideally offering refreshments and with a focus on ensuring people feel safe and comfortable.

Why Peer Support?

In the context of mental health and well-being, the benefits of peer support include:

  • Helping people know they’re not alone, reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Feeling reassured listening to other people who ‘get it’
  • Like-minded people coming together with a common purpose or shared experience, where the conversation they bring could benefit someone else.

What Topics Can You Cover?

The wonderful thing about peer support is that it can be for pretty much any topic. Whether you’re thinking of running a weekly quiz night for people over a certain age to help reduce loneliness, hoping to bring together a group of students to support them in their last year of Uni, or looking to meet the need of a specific community, topic or profession (like nursing, teaching or policing), peer support can add value. As long as the group has one thing in common and some form of purpose (usually to support and encourage), then people may see the benefit.

Things to Consider

There are many things to consider when thinking about setting up your own peer support group, and this is where training can help. (If you’d like some training, just get in touch using the form further down). Here are just a few things to keep in mind:

  • Will your group be formal or informal – e.g. will you need someone qualified on hand, and are you ‘reporting’ to anyone in term of outcomes?
  • How regularly will you meet?
  • Do you need a budget, and if so how much?
  • How will people hear about your group, and how will they contact you to join?
  • Where will you be holding your peer support? Does the venue need to have any specific access requirements; who will be responsible for opening/locking up?
  • Will you be providing refreshments? If so, will the venue supply these, or will they support you in providing your own?
  • What will the basic ground rules and housekeeping arrangements be and how will these be communicated?
  • How will you manage enquiries and concerns (including, for example, any differences of opinion in the group)?
  • What skills apart from empathy do you need to run your group, and is any training needed?
  • How will you ensure the safety of those attending and yourself (physically and emotionally), e.g. setting firm boundaries, and safeguarding arrangements for people who are vulnerable.
  • Will you need to be DBS checked and have your own insurance? (Volunteers Centres can often help with this).
  • And perhaps most importantly, why are you thinking of doing this? What do you hope to achieve / how do you want to help?

Can Peer Support Work Online?

The short answer is yes. Many people have adapted beautifully since the coronavirus outbreak, and are creating groups online from neighbourhood quiz nights to help people stay connected, to delivering support for those affected by domestic abuse. It will depend how ‘interactive’ you want your peer support to be, how comfortable people are coming in via platforms like Zoom, or if they’re more comfortable using the ‘comments’ section for example in a private Facebook group.

It’s up to you whether you decide to provide peer support online, but there will be a few additional considerations, including how safe and secure your platform is and who will moderate it, if for example you run a group via Facebook. Always check the settings of these platforms so people aren’t left feeling exposed or vulnerable in any way. If providing via Zoom, for example, here are some safety considerations via Bedfordshire Police.

One of the best places to start may be to do some research, see what the need is in your area, what you feel you have to offer – and why – and whether you feel you have the time and capacity to do it. Don’t be surprised if it takes your idea or group a while to get up and running; if people are benefiting it will soon grow organically. Make sure you look after yourself too with regular, restorative acts of self-care.

You might also consider supervision or Co-Reflective Practice, a type of peer support for professionals working in the helping professions or people management, and provides an opportunity to offload in another safe space.

To get in touch about mentoring or peer support group training for your organisation, use the form below.

Copyright Delphi Ellis 2020 edited 2022

Published by Delphi Ellis

Therapeutic counsellor, well-being trainer and author working with grief and mental health, helping people get their sparkle back. Explores dreams on telly. Avid tea drinker. © Delphi Ellis - Helping You Sparkle™ 2006 - 21

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