Is Peer Support a replacement for professional mental health support?

Over 50% of Mental Health problems start in childhood and we are all well aware of the difficulties many children have in accessing appropriate treatment from their local Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services. The Department for Education has a new idea that might help and they want to know your views whether you are a parent, young person, or if you work with children affected by these difficulties in education, health or social care services.

The Dfe's recently launched a consultation on ‘peer support for mental health’, asking children and adults what they think about peer support/mentoring for mental health and emotional wellbeing. It’s a good opportunity to have your views on peer mentoring heard and if you don't know what that is, you're luck is in so read on.

Is Peer Mentoring a replacement for professional mental health support?

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What is Peer Support?

Peer support can be a variety of things - from helping a friend to discuss their problems through buddying and befriending schemes, to 1:1 and group support sessions. It can happen face to face or be online. It’s about promoting emotional well-being as much as supporting those with problems. The responses from the call for evidence will be used to help develop models for peer support.

The DfE wants to know about your experiences of what best practice in peer support across all types of issues looks like.

Best Practice for peer support?

I had to think about this carefully, because each person seeking peer support is different and what is good for one may not be good for somebody else. In addition, best practice in theory isn’t always best practice in the real world. So this, below, is what I felt was important based upon my experience.

  • There has to be room for flexibility in delivering a peer mentoring service i.e, number of sessions allocated and where the peer mentoring is accessed
  • Mentored peer support can be really beneficial, but needs to involve robust and resilient youngsters who understand the ebb and flow that mentoring can entail.
  • Trust and feeling safe are imperative to young people and peer support must encompass this for the young person.
  • This venture must be about the young person and not about the adult feeling they are 'doing something', or about meeting a target of some description. Therapy or mentoring that is target-focused can close down communication with young people, possibly making them feel forced into something they may otherwise feel uncomfortable about.
  • While there is a vast difference between peer mentoring and counseling, lots of the difficulties experienced by young people that are brought to counselling will be similar to those brought to peer mentoring. It may stop the young person feeling isolated and negate the need to access counseling which could be really good.

The DfE then asked how this best practice can be translated into supporting children and young people’s mental well-being. Here are my tips:

Keep the dialogue going!

Get everyone talking about mental health difficulties. Don’t be shy, the more young people know and are aware of their own mental health hiccups and difficulties, the more accessible they are to receiving support. Many young people think they are the only one feeling the way they do and that is just not true!

Don't skip on initial costs!

Use trained, independent individuals (independent of the school and not necessarily pastoral support), who come into the school (initially) and show the young people a consistent face they can trust. This should be someone who can do small group work, increasing self-awareness about the difficulties that young people face today and allowing the young person to be who they are.

Self awareness is key to long term change

I know I bang on about self-awareness, but this will be a key part of ‘good’ peer mentoring service.

  • To start with, I think small groups or 1:1 with a mental health professional would be an excellent start to ensure the mentors are prepared for the role they are undertaking.
  • Support for the supporter will be a crucial part of the success of the project. By this I mean peer and group supervision
  • Accessing mentoring should always be voluntary for the young person. However, adults making suggestions to young people that they feel may benefit would be good too. (with the young person understanding they also have the right to say no).
  • It should also be completely confidential where possible (subject to safeguarding etc).
  • Peer and self-referral would be important and ensuring that everyone knows it's available. I frequently notice there are services out there that very few people realise are available to them.
  • Being kept in mind: Most people like to be 'kept in mind', in other words, knowing that somebody is thinking about them and asking how they are, what has their week been like, that type of thing. It may be something that some young people have never experienced.
  • If the peer mentoring is school-based, then it is crucial that the benefits of peer mentoring is fed down in a positive way from the school's senior leadership team. If this doesn’t happen, it can be difficult to engage other members of staff in the benefits of peer mentoring on children’s mental health.

What support or training for peer mentors is needed to make the support effective?

Adequate funding is vital so mentors can be trained in mentoring skills. They need to attend self-learning courses and learn about mental health.  Self-awareness really is key to finding a good working model as it allows 'reflection' back to the young person. Short courses that teach the potential mentors in impactive bursts, that allow fun to be interjected too (by facilitators trained in mental health). Young people often like humour as it lessens the immediate pressure they may be feeling.

Peer mentoring should have a similar consistency and support as counselling. Counselling can work so well because it’s a consistent service that the young person can attend on a weekly basis for a set period of time. Online mentoring can be a real support when face-to-face is not possible and sessions can be adapted to meet the young person's needs. For example, counselling is often 50 minutes per session, but this could be adapted to shorter sessions with online support in-between. Small group work can reach a wider remit of young people too and the benefits of a good group generally are well known.

In the absence of funding for specialised services such as youth counselling or a good enough CAMHS service, peer mentoring , if used well and supported by the adults that are implementing it, could be a key element to providing the support a teenager needs to avoid a mental health crisis.

What are your thoughts on peer support? Please leave your comments below.

You only have until 24th March if you want to respond to the consultation

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Angela Kelly

Psychotherapist & SEND parent at Emotions Counselling & Psychotherapy
Angela Kelly is a practising psychotherapist in Surrey. She is the parent of two sons who have autism and ADHD. Angela is Special Needs Jungle's Mental Health Editor
Angela Kelly
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