Peer support is a relationship in which people see each other as equal partners and where the focus is on mutual learning and growth. At the roots of peer support there is a hope and a belief that through sharing and support we can transform our lives and the lives of our communities for the better.
“I know whenever one of my patients sees a peer support worker, magic happens”
Peers can be people with similar health conditions, and/or from similar communities or backgrounds, including people with shared identities based on their sexuality, gender, ethnicity or other characteristics.
Peer support is a reciprocal relationship, benefiting both those providing and receiving the support. Benefits can include creating collective strategies to maintain health, building resilience and self-esteem and aiding advocacy and collective action.
“I now see myself as someone who can support others”
Peer Support trainee
Structured peer support is delivered by trained peer staff or volunteers, in both one-to-one or in group settings. Trained peer supporters can model positive and healthy behaviour and signpost to services and appropriate information. The focus is on strengths and abilities, motivating and working to achieve agreed goals and improve or maintain quality of life.
The value of peer support in promoting people’s health and well-being is recognised by the NHS within the 5-Year Forward View. The NHS’s Realising the Value programme identified the role of peer support in enabling people with long term conditions, such as HIV, in contributing to personal well-being and improved clinical outcomes, resulting in cost savings to health and social care.
“When peer support is offered it helps reduce the cost of services, reduces physical and mental ill health and lessens social isolation”
Person living with HIV
In the field of HIV the BHIVA Standards of Care identify the value of engaging with peer support services and the NHS contracts for both adults and children’s clinical care identify the role of peer support in promoting self-management.
Peer support creates opportunities for both parties to grow and achieve a sense of control and empowerment. It can be formal or informal, and can range from friends sharing, to people within groups supporting each other, to a befriending service.
In the 1980’s, when little was known about HIV and discrimination was widespread, small groups were formed by individuals who risked much in order to give and get support, to share knowledge and to lobby for treatment and appropriate care. HIV services owe their existence to these activists and those who campaigned alongside them. From these small beginnings emerged activism on treatment availability and prices, community advocacy, and the movements to combat stigma and influence service delivery. The expert patient initiative, the availability of information written by people living with HIV and policy lobbying organisations were soon to follow.
“In simple terms peer support saves lives and health care funds”
HIV Peer Support Standards Steering Group member
HIV peer support, like the disabled people’s movement, has a political dimension in challenging discrimination, advocating for particular and appropriate services and access to treatment. It has altered the weighting in the doctor-patient relationship, into something at best approaching equality, or at least, being consultative. HIV activists welcomed the Human Rights Act and searched it for its application to HIV, to challenge areas where rights were seen as being infringed, and successfully campaigned to have HIV accepted as fitting the social model of disability.