What are peer-based programs?

Peer-based programs for young people represent an approach in which young people provide a source of informal support for other young people.

A variety of program types exist including drop-in spaces, peer education programs, mentoring programs, and online support services.

Peer-based interventions are characterised by a complex and highly variable application of approaches, definitions and interpretations, often summarised under the umbrella term of ‘peer education’. The diversity of utilised strategies targeting a multitude of population groups aimed at the achievement of differing goals and objectives make it difficult to assess and review the field of peer-facilitated programs.

An assortment of terms and concepts exists, e.g. peer support, mediation, advocacy, tutoring; however, in practice, these terms may be used interchangeably contributing to inconsistent and conflicting findings in the literature.1

In addition, many different types of peer-based programs exist including community and school-based programs, informal drop-in centres, structured peer support programs, weekend camps, peer education/-leadership programs, mentoring programs and online support services.

Peer-based programs are further characterised by the utilisation of an approach that actively involves young people in all stages of a program including participation in program design, delivery and evaluation.

Peer-based approaches have been used increasingly throughout the world as a health promotion strategy to reach and sensitise young people to health and social related issues.2 Peer-based initiatives are based on the premise that young people tend to discuss personal issues with their peers rather than with parents or adults and on the basis that peers are often regarded as a more credible and non-judgmental source of information.3 By formalising and centering conversations amongst peers around health promoting and risk reducing actions programs attempt to empower youth to attain healthy lifestyles.4

Peer-based initiatives can be an appealing way to reach marginalised young people and other hard to reach populations who may face difficulties accessing main-stream health care and support services.  Peer-based programs may offer a variety of alternative services including online and outdoor/nature-based programs.5-7

It is important to recognise that most peer-based initiatives are positioned as preventative strategies, i.e. they may help mental health problems from developing but do not seek to treat existing mental health problems; where counselling or therapeutic intervention is more appropriate. Peer-based support programs can thus be located amongst the early intervention range of a spectrum of mental health approaches (Figure 1), assisting in reducing the chances that a person will require medical or psychological treatment as a result of their circumstances.8

Figure 1     A spectrum of mental health approaches

Peer Program Framework

Source: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care (2000)9

Read about the different types of peer-based programs.

Read about a framework for defining peer-based programs in mental health promotion.


  1. Burmaster, E 2002, Youth to Youth: A review of peer program theoretical underpinnings, forms, functions, and process- and outcome-related findings 2001-02. A literature review, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
  2. Svenson, G & Burke, H 2005, Formative Research on Youth Peer Education Program Productivity and Sustainability, Youth Research Working Paper No.3, Family Health International.
  3. McDonald, J, Ashenden, R, Grove, J, Bodein, H, Cormack, S, Allsop, S 2000. Youth for Youth: A Project to Develop Skills and Resources for Peer Education: Final Report, National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Adelaide.
  4. United Nations Population Funds 2008, Expanding Access to Youth-Friendly Services, UNFPA. Retrieved June 22, 2009, from <http://www.unfpa.org/about/>
  5. Brown, G, Lobo, R, Maycock, B & Burns, S 2007a, ‘A framework for defining the role peer-based approaches in mental health promotion’, International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 29-37.
  6. McDonald, J, Roche, A, Durbridge, M & Skinner, N 2003, Peer Education: From Evidence to Practice: An alcohol and other drugs primer, National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, Adelaide.
  7. Svenson, GR 1998, ‘European guidelines for youth AIDS peer education’, ed. Department of Community Medicine. Lund University & The European Commission, Malmo, Sweden.
  8. Turner, G 1999, ‘Peer support and young people’s health’, Journal of Adolescence, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 567-72.
  9. Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care 2000, National Action Plan for Promotion, Prevention and Early Intervention for Mental Health, Mental Health and Special Programs Branch, Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, Canberra.