Peer support happens when people with similar experiences offer each other encouragement, resources, and support. Key principles and values of peer support include mutuality, respect, shared responsibility, trust, and hope. Peer support is a natural phenomenon and occurs in many different forms, in regards to many different life experiences. Peer support in the context of mental health has been defined by Shery Mead in her article Defining Peer Support as:
“…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. 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. This allows members of the peer community to try out new behaviors with one another and move beyond previously held self-concepts built on disability, diagnosis and trauma worldview.”
The key point here is the shared experience. There are many people who have had deep experiences with psychological pain. And many of those people use those painful experiences to offer support to others going through similar experiences. This is peer support. Peer support is one person reaching out to another and saying, “I’ve felt that pain too. I’m here for you.”
As people with similar life experiences come together, they often find that they trust each other and understand each other. They can then develop a supportive, healing relationship.
Of course, supportive relationships can and do happen between people without shared life experience. The personal sharing of experience is what makes peer support unique. That sharing allows people to learn from each other. They can share skills they have learned for staying well.
That personal sharing also creates hope. When people who are experiencing hardship see another person who has experienced similar hardships and has recovered, they may become hopeful that they, too, can recover.
When individuals experiencing psychological pain or disempowerment see another person who has also experienced that pain and disempowerment, but who has recovered, they may become hopeful that they, too, can recover.
As individuals with similar life experiences come together, they can often build a rapport with each other on the basis of their shared understanding and develop a supportive, healing relationship.