Peer support occurs when people share their experiences or knowledge, and provide emotional, social or practical help to each other.
Peer support can include a range of activities, from informal conversation between peers, through to formal programs that might involve trained and paid peer support workers. It can take place in person, or over the telephone or internet; between two people, a small group or within a large group.
Peer support amongst young people recognises their skills and abilities in helping others to solve problems. It involves training and supporting young leaders, to share information with peers who have similar characteristics, in order to achieve positive health outcomes.
In the context of the Local Drug Action Team Program, peer support programs focus on preventing alcohol and other drug (AOD) harms. They do not focus on AOD treatment or recovery, and are not provided by people who have a personal experience of AOD misuse.
Peer support programs have been shown to be effective with young people aged 6-30 years. Peer support is particularly beneficial for young people who are experiencing life transitions (e.g. through adolescence, secondary school, or into the workforce) and those who are socially isolated.
Young people frequently turn to their peers for information and advice, and research has demonstrated that peers affect the health behaviour of their group members. AOD peer support programs draw on the credibility that young people have with their peers to encourage healthy role modelling, deliver persuasive messages and positively influence young people’s knowledge, attitudes, values and behaviour to prevent AOD harms.
Peer support programs are flexible and can be delivered in different environments, and are particularly good at accessing socially isolated, hard-to-reach, or ‘hidden’ population groups.
Peer support programs help to promote the development of positive peer relationships and reduce social isolation, enhance problem solving and decision-making skills, foster resilience, deal effectively with bullying behaviours, and positively impact young people’s sense of self-confidence and self-worth. Peer support helps to enhance the mental, social and emotional wellbeing of young people and create an increased sense of belonging and connectedness, which protects against AOD related issues.
AOD peer support programs can be effective provided they are based on principles of effective practice. See Peer support planning - What works and what doesn’t work.
The potential for AOD harms to affect young people is influenced by a range of factors that occur in the many different domains of their lives, including the community, family and school. Influencing young people through their social networks (i.e. their peers) is an effective way to prevent AOD harms and achieve positive health outcomes. Peer support that forms part of a broader community approach to preventing AOD harms are much more effective than those that stand alone.
AOD peer support programs can help to prevent or delay the start of drug use, and reduce young peoples’ drug use. As the risks attached to alcohol and other drug use escalates when drug use is started early, AOD prevention that delays use even by a year may reduce short- and long-term harm.
Peer support is also empowering and beneficial for peer leaders involved in the program.
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that alcohol and drug-related risk and harm are caused by the same factors as other health and social outcomes such as youth suicide, social dislocation, mental health and sexual health problems, and that prevention and early intervention that addresses these factors (e.g. resilience, social connection) can make a difference across those outcomes.
State Government Victoria 2012, Peer Support: A guide to how people with a disability and carers can help each other to make the most of their disability supports, Department of Human Services, Melbourne.
Turner G 1999, Peer support and young people’s health, Journal of Adolescent Health, 22 p567-72
Bleeker A 2011, Drug use and young people – rationale for the DSP, presented to the 2nd International Conference on Drugs and Young People: Exploring the Bigger Picture, Melbourne: Australian Drug FoundationDrugInfo Clearinghouse 2006, Prevention Research Quarterly: Current evidence evaluated – Peer education, Australian Drug Foundation, West Melbourne.
Lee-Ann Marsh, Coordinator of Wellbeing, Toorak College, Developing capability – peer support mentoring, Available at: peersupport.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Alliance-of-girls-schools-publication.pdf