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Guest Blog: The true value of peer support

– Jess Worner, Together for Mental Wellbeing

A study undertaken by national mental health charity Together for Mental Wellbeing has revealed that every pound spent on peer support yields a social return worth £4.94. Together’s Peer Support Practice Manager Jess Worner takes a closer look at the model behind these impressive stats.

Social return on investment (SROI) studies can be enormously helpful when quantifying outcomes that are hard to pin down. There’s no universal way to measure things like; increased confidence, feeling more in control or hopeful about the future, so SROI means we can communicate about the difference our services make in an accessible and consistent way.

That’s why we’ve been so excited to share the results of our study into the peer support happening in three of our Hampshire residential services. After years of knowing how well our model works, it’s been great for us to see this evidenced by a Social Value UK assured study.

At Together, we define peer support as people with experience of mental distress supporting each other towards better wellbeing, using their own lived experience as a tool for support. The experience of peer support is shared between the people providing and the people receiving support, and both experience mutual benefits for their wellbeing. A crucial element of a peer support relationship is a sense of equality. Peers share part of their journey with each other, whilst acknowledging that each journey is unique. Individuals may be at different points in their own journey, but they can still learn from each other along the way.

Many of the people who use peer support within Together services say it works for them precisely because of this unique relationship. People are able to open up and talk to someone with similar experiences without fear of judgement. This can decrease feelings of stigma and of “being the only one”, which in turn helped a total of 83% of service users feel more accepted for who they are. I saw this first hand in my previous role as a Peer Support Coordinator; people using the service opened up to their Peer Supporter in a totally different way than they did with our Recovery Workers.

The peer relationship was described by some stakeholders as a “bridge” that encourages service users to socialise with others outside of a formal support setting and 83% of the people using the service reported an improved social life and support network. Strengthening these informal networks can ultimately lead to individuals not needing a formal support any more. For some, their next step towards independence is often to become a Peer Supporter themselves, drawing on their own experiences to support others.

Facilitating peer support, whether paid or unpaid, requires a lot of behind the scenes resource. Together are committed to providing high quality and sustainable services, so wherever we offer peer support we ensure we have a Peer Support Coordinator, who has lived experience of mental distress themselves, to oversee peer support within the service. Peer Support Coordinators offer ongoing training, support and guidance to Peer Supporters,  and work alongside services users, Peer Supporters and staff to ensure consistency with our Peer Support Charter. The Charter has been collectively developed by a large number of people with lived experience of mental distress, and sets out our expectations based on the essential and non-negotiable principles that guide peer support  across all of our services.  It is crucial that staff, service users and Peer Supporters work together to put these principles into practice. Supporting people to do this forms part of my own role as Peer Support Practice Manager.

So, although it’s key that the experience of peer support is organic and natural, having clear processes, a robust support infrastructure, and dedicated staff are all vital for the volunteer model to function well. The study found that all of our Peer Supporters felt that they had improved prospects, and the training and supervision we provide will no doubt have helped achieve this result. A number of the Peer Supporters who took part in the study have since gone into paid employment, education and/ or other voluntary opportunities and one described being a Peer Supporter as a ‘stepping stone’ into employment.

Our study shows how powerful this form of support is, but ultimately it’s the people who use the service who can give us the biggest insight into why it works. Our model of peer support is based on service user leadership, and our services are always developed alongside the people who use them.  When we began the study, we ran a series of focus groups to find out what  people using peer support value about it. The outcomes we ended up measuring came from feedback about what those people truly valued about the service, and what they’d individually experienced while being a part of it.

Holly , who used the service, said in one of the interviews: “I really valued the suggestions my Peer Supporter made to help me find my own ways of moving forward. I felt that, as they had been there themselves, their suggestions may actually work. Since then I’ve been able to do so much more than I thought I could.”

Peer support can sometimes be seen as an added optional extra to traditional mental health services, but more and more it’s becoming valued as a core component of commissioned services. As the benefits of peer support are becoming more recognised our team at Together are working alongside Peer Supporters and people who use our services, to adapt our model to reach even more people. This includes telephone support and increasing the provision of group based peer support, but one of our biggest goals is to encourage those who’ve received peer support to share their positive experiences with others who may benefit from it. We know their stories will complement the SROI results and further evidence what we at Together, and services users like Holly, already know: that peer support can help people experiencing mental distress do so much more than they think they can.

You can read more about peer support at Together on their website.