Is peer support appropriate?

Peer support has many benefits, and programs can be developed for a range of target groups, to address a variety of issues.  However there can also be a number of challenges to using a peer based approach.

Young people who present to services may be deemed not suitable to participate in your program for a range of reasons.

Consider the following:

  • Some young people may be outside the target age range or not fit other key characteristics of the peer group.
  • Peer support works well when you can identify and describe a specific target population, however, sometimes it may be difficult to recruit individuals of a particular group about an issue or problem.
  • A substantial amount of highly technical knowledge, skills or experience may need to be communicated as a part of the program to reach its desired outcomes. Peers may not be well suited to programs that require a high level of knowledge- or skills-based programs (e.g. counseling young people with suicidal thoughts or an unplanned pregnancy).
  • Peer support may not be appropriate when access to the audience is simple and can be provided effectively for costs and outcomes by other means of education/communication (e.g. social marketing, universal school- and community-based programs).
  • When a single simple message needs to be communicated to people willing to take it on, a much more cost and energy efficient approach may be more appropriate than peer support.
  • If a very large and diverse population needs to be reached, peer support approaches may not be useful because it may be difficult for peers to work with diverse groups. In these situations other school and community-based programs should be considered.
  • It is not appropriate for youth peer-based support programs to address complex or crisis social, emotional and physical health issues. Peers working in peer-based programs need skills to effectively refer young people experiencing such problems to adequate support services. For example, it it not appropriate for a peer to counsel a young person with suicidal thoughts if they do not have the necessary qualification, however, it is important that they assist this person to receive appropriate help as soon as possible.

In making a decision about whether peer support is appropriate for your program, also consider:

  • Will selected peer supporters be able to speak in a language appropriate for the target group?
  • Are the peer supporters trusted and do they have credibility with the target group?
  • Will peer supporters be able to provide information, awareness and skills in the most appropriate manner for this group?
  • Will identifying an individual as a peer supporter have the potential to alienate the young person from their existing support networks, and undermine their ability to provide support to others? For example, inappropriate responses to disclosures or behaviours could cause issues, or the role itself may cause a change in actual or perceived power imbalances both by the peer group and the peer supporter.
  • Is sufficient support and supervision available for peer supporters?

Also consider reviewing the benefits, challenges, and ethical practice concerns of peer based programs.

You will of course want to choose your program type more generally. This will depend on a number of factors including organisational capacity and resources, organisational culture, or consideration of the environment. These considerations will depend on the objectives of your project and the needs of your target group.