How do peer-based programs work?

Youth helping youth

Mainstream education and health care institutions often cannot supply the unique and individual support and services that at risk youth require. Peer-based support programs have the capacity to engage with young people at risk offering a non-judgmental, understanding and supportive environment amongst like-minded peers to help them cope with stressful life events and improve resilience.

By helping young people to develop strategies and skills that help them build social networks where confiding relationships can be established, peer-based support interventions aim to reduce social, emotional and/or cognitive isolation.1,2

Marginalised youth represent a hard to reach population group, therefore participating in a peer support group and promoting young people’s inclusion into a social network is regarded as most beneficial for vulnerable young people.3

Peer-based programs have the potential to have a positive effect on many areas of a young person’s health and wellbeing including self-esteem, self-efficacy and expectations about individual control.4,5

Peer-based programs innately recognise the unique skills and ability of young people to provide a constructive role in the solution to their own problems. Peer-based initiatives also recognise that once learned, peers can assist to develop these skills amongst other young people.4,5

Peer support models targeting at risk youth make use of the concept that young people experiencing stressful life events tend to turn to their peers for help, advice and support, rather than to ask parents, teachers or professionals for help. Young people at risk are also often unaware of services available or ways in which to access them. This can amplify experiences of unimportance and isolation for some young people.4 Peer-based programs make use of the notion that young people can provide an informal and natural support network for each other when they have insufficient sources of support available to them. In addition, peer programs in general provide opportunities for marginalised youth to access required information, and help to foster positive attitudes towards a specific issue (e.g. sexual identity issues; chronic illnesses) or towards themselves.7

Peers are often regarded as more credible and non-judgmental sources of information than parents or other adults.8 Peer-based programs for young people are based on this idea; that young people will discuss personal issues with their peers rather than with parents or other adults.5,9 Therefore, by formalising and centering conversations amongst peers around actions that promote health and reduce risk, they can empower young people to improve health and wellbeing.10-12

Find out more about the theoretical framework that underlies these programs as well as their benefits.


  1. Brown, G, Lobo, R, Maycock, B, McManus, A, Burns, S, Silburn, S, Roberts, C & Carruthers, S 2007b, ‘MY-Peer Research Synopsis, MY-Peer Project – Good practice standards to support peer-based outreach programs for marginalised youth’, Western Australian Centre for Health Promotion Research, Curtin University of Technology, Perth.
  2. Brown, G & Lobo, R 2008a, ‘BILYIDAR Cultural Awareness and Leadership Program, Outcomes Evaluation Project, Final Project Report’. Western Australian Centre for Health Promotion Research, Curtin University of Technology, Perth.
  3. Parsons, M & Blake, S 2004, Peer support: An overview, Spotlight, National Children’s Bureau. Retrieved June 23, 2009, from
  4. Turner, G 1999, ‘Peer support and young people’s health’, Journal of Adolescence, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 567-72.
  5. Visser, MJ 2004, Implementig Peer Support in Schools: Using a Theoretical Framework in Actin Research. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 14(6): 436-454.
  6. Stanton-Salazar, R & Spina, S 2005, ‘Adolescent Peer Networks as a Context for Social and Emotional Support’, Youth and Society, vol. 36, no. 4, p. 379.
  7. Olsson, C, Boyce, M, Toumbourou, J & Sawyer, S 2005, ‘The Role of Peer Support in Facilitating Psychosocial Adjustment to Chronic Illness in Adolescence’, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 78-87.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Svenson, G & Burke, H 2005, Formative Research on Youth Peer Education Program Productivity and Sustainability, Youth Research Working Paper No.3, Family Health International.
  11. Svenson, GR 1998, ‘European guidelines for youth AIDS peer education’, ed. Department of Community Medicine. Lund University & The European Commission, Malmo, Sweden.
  12. United Nations Population Funds 2008, Expanding Access to Youth-Friendly Services, UNFPA. Retrieved June 22, 2009, from