What is peer support?

What does it mean to be a peer?

The word peer refers to people who have things in common. Peers use these common experiences to help one another. 

Peer support is based on the belief that people who overcome challenges and hardships can offer useful guidance to others experiencing similar issues. Cancer and addiction support groups are examples of peer support. 

History of the Peer Support Movement

When hundreds of state and community hospitals closed in the 1960s and 1970s, former patients began meeting together to socialize and provide support to one another. They shared stories about the quality of their treatments — both good and bad. Inspired by the desire to improve mental healthcare, former patients became activists, demanding freedom of choice, including peer-run programs. Their demands were initially met with resistance.

On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System, a 1978 groundbreaking book by Judi Chamberlin, details the author’s experiences in a mental hospital. Chamberlin’s account pioneered the movement of individuals with mental health issues taking control of their own lives.

In 1983, On Our Own, Inc., one of the first peer-run centers in the U.S., opened in Maryland. The state now has 15 peer-run programs under the On Our Own, Inc. name.

Current peer run programs and services

Today’s peer run programs can be found across the world. U.S. federal and state agencies hire peers and fund peer programs and services. Some states even offer specialized training and certification programs.

Peer programs are now so widespread that they can be found in hospitals and outpatient centers. Types of programs vary, ranging from formal to informal.

While peer support has grown significantly over the years and become a respected segment of mental healthcare, the field is still expanding. Peers and staff continue to develop methods to improve the lives of people experiencing mental illnesses, including combating stigma.

Two main concepts from the early peer movement that were once considered radical are now accepted and considered mainstream today: That individuals experiencing mental health illnesses can provide useful supports; and that self-determination — individuals are their own best advocates — is necessary to recovery. 

For more information, visit the International Association of Peer Supporters (iNAPS) for best-practice guidelines.