It may be said that peer support first started in the AA groups of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the United States in 1935. Peer support may mean activities arranged by organizations which provide rooms as well as training and support for peers. On the other hand, peer support may mean spontaneous activities, initiated by citizens, with no background organization involved. Peer support may also be part of the services provided by the public sector or an organization. In that case, peer support is part of the therapy or rehabilitation process of a customer. In a wider sense, peer support may, however, mean all human interaction and discussion about one’s own personal situation (Nylund 1996; Rissanen & Jurvansuu 2017).
Peer support is provided in different contexts: as mutual support, in activity groups, in open meeting places, as online peer support, or as group activities in peer groups. A group can be led by a peer, a professional, or a peer and a professional as a pair. A peer may also support others in their rehabilitation or recovery process by participating in developing the activities or a service system of an organization.
The significance of spontaneous help given by individuals and communities is anticipated to increase, as responsibility is being transferred from the public sector to peer communities and individuals. The current social discussion has brought up the need to examine the methods, possibilities and challenges of peer activities provided by organizations. The RAY (Slot Machine Association) funded MIPA research project, implemented by organizations working in the drug and mental health sectors, aims at responding to this challenge. In the MIPA project, data was collected in 2016 by two inquiries, one of which was targeted to the management of local organizations, and the other one to peers and staff members. (Rissanen & Jurvansuu 2017)
The results of the study concretized the definitions and charateristics of being a peer, elaborated in earlier studies, such as mutual support and the importance of socializing, interaction and belonging to a community. Being a peer gives a chance to help others on the basis of one’s own empirical experience, as well as to realize one’s own values and social orientation. Acting as a peer supports one’s own wellbeing in a rehabilitation or recovery process. Also, the concrete benefits provided by peer activities were emphasised. The motives for participation were related to a peers’ everyday life, work and leisure. (Rissanen & Jurvansuu 2017).
One of the essential observations and results of the MIPA study was the difference of views between employers and peers, the two groups emphasising different sectors of the tasks of the peers. Employers underlined the role of peers within an organization in assisting and supporting tasks, i.e. in offering personal support. The peers themselves brought up more strongly indirect assistance, i.e. participation in development and advocacy activities and their role as trainers, lecturers and panelists, i.e. their having a role in an organization’s external relations and as opinion leaders in the society.
Every third of the peers participating in the study had felt exhaustion or fatigue in their tasks. As the number of the peers participating in the study was small, this result is not necessarily to be generalized. The study recommends that the powers and wellfare of the peers should be surveyed with more manifold and exact indicators. It is important to invest in counselling and support to peers and in actions which, when necessary, can ease a peer’s burden or even help her/him to withdraw from the tasks. Actually, organizations had paid attention to supporting peers in different ways.
Peer activities are more frequently available in organizations working in the drug and mental health sectors in big operation areas. A large population renders possible a variety of peer reference groups, and it is easier to avoid the stigma connected to drug and mental health problems in big localities than in small communities. As it is important to provide peer activities also in small, more remote localities, big organizations have met the challenge by arranging online peer activities.
Peer activities were of essential importance in the drug and mental health sectors. Their weight, however, varied. In organizations working in big localities, peer activities had more weight, with more types of connected activities. Especially in organizations founded before 1986, the weight was marked. The authors of the study consider that, in future studies, it would be interesting to examine whether the younger organizations meet better some other of the altered needs of today’s society (for instance developing activities, creating services), and what turn the peer work will take in organizations in the future.
Päivi Rissanen and Sari Jurvansuu: Vertaistoiminnan muodot ja merkitys päihde- ja mielenterveysjärjestöissä, Kuntoutus 1/2017, ss. 5–17 (Forms and significance of peer activities in drug and mental health organizations)
Nylund Marianne (1996): Suomalaisia oma-apuryhmiä. Teoksessa Mathies A-L, Kotakari U, Nylund M (toim.) Välittävät verkostot. Vastapaino, Tampere, 193–205. (Finnish self-help groups. In the publication ”Caring networks” by Mathies A-L, Kotakari U, Nylund M (ed)).
Text: Anitta Raitanen, Kansalaisareena ry/Citizen Forum
Photo: Peer photo exhibition 2016, Citizen Forum (Why not exchange also some more cheerful news in the A Guild meeting). The peer photo exhibition can further be booked for private use free of charge. If you are interested, contact Katja Reinikainen: katja.reinikainen(at)kansalaisareena.fi.