What is peer support?
The Ontario Peer Development Initiative defines peer support as a naturally occurring, mutually beneficial process where people who share a common experience meet as equals to share skills, strengths and hope, and to learn from each other how to cope, thrive and flourish.
Formalized peer support begins when a person with lived experience, who has received specialized training, assumes a unique, designated role within the mental health system to support another individual’s expressed wishes. Specialized peer support training is peer developed and delivered, endorsed by consumer/survivor initiatives*, peer support organizations* and patient councils, and is rooted in principles of recovery, hope and individual empowerment.
Mental health peer support workers are in an ideal position to support their peers to understand their risk of diabetes, to learn and practice prevention strategies, and to self-manage diabetes. Given the shortcomings in the social determinants of health for this population (income, housing, and food in particular), strategies to support self-management and prevention must be accessible, affordable and practical. Mental health peer support workers know and understand this reality and have experience with supporting people to improve their health and quality of life under difficult circumstances. Specialized training in the project’s diabetes module will build on the core competency training that peer supporters have received either through OPDI’s Peer Support Core Essentials™ Program or another peer support training program.
*Consumer/survivor initiatives and peer support organizations are community-based, self-help organizations run by and for consumer/survivors.
Shery Mead defines 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.”1
The “real” and successful impact of peer support can be attributed to the following:
- Peer support relies on the informed perspective of people with a chronic illness who are familiar with the “system”
- A strengths-based approach is preferred over a “chronic disease” model
- The possibility of hope and recovery is embedded among those helping one another
The Peer Support Project Committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada uses a broad definition that defines peer support as “any organized support provided by and for people with mental health problems. Peer support is sometimes known as self-help, mutual aid, co-counselling or mutual support.”2
Mental health peer support organizations operate across Canada and around the world in a wide variety of formats including:
- unfunded self-help meetings
- drop-in peer support and social recreational programs
- Patient Councils of general and psychiatric hospitals
- alternative businesses, or social purpose enterprises
- survivor operated and delivered mental health services
- academic research and evaluation units and groups
- crisis supports and warm lines
- training programs; recovery, leadership skills
- political and legal advocacy and lobbying groups
- historical remembrance and recognition projects and activities
- peer support training programs and worker associations
- provincial/state/national/international networks
- arts and cultural activity groups
- specialized peer support (e.g., those who have experienced the criminal justice system, have histories of trauma or are in recovery from substance use)
Mental health peer support has been a long-established best practice recognized in Canada.
 Shery Mead, “Defining Peer Support,” March 2003.
 Mary O’Hagan, Céline Cyr, Heather McKee and Robyn Priest, “Making the Case for Peer Support: Report to the Peer Support Project Committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada,” September 2010.