The benefits of peer support are clear, with shared identity, increased self-confidence, accompanied by less use of mental health and other services.
In the Peer Support Programme, students support other students with their emotional and psychosocial well-being. The Programme was developed by Oxford University in recognition of the essential role students play in supporting and encouraging one another on a day-to-day basis throughout their time at university.
The Peer Support Programme is run through the Oxford University Counselling Service. It was started at Oxford University 24 years ago as a response to the stated needs of students (and staff) in welfare positions and pastoral roles who wanted to help their peers, but weren’t sure how to go about it.
Today the programme operates with approximately 350 student volunteers and is an integral part of the College and University welfare system, aiming to complement the other welfare provision available. The focus of the peer support is primarily on the emotional and psychosocial experience of students. The fact that emotions are recognized and spoken about, as well as the acknowledgement that we all need support at some point, underpins the role of peer support in reducing the stigma of seeking help.
The Oxford University Peer Support Programme builds on the natural tendency for students to care for each other by giving them 30 hours of training in a range of support and communication skills, to enable them to help peers think through issues that are important to them, and to empower the person they are supporting through listening in an non-judgmental way.
Trained peer-supporters provide a friendly, confidential, informal and formal listening service to their peers. In addition to the listening service they provide, they run events to offer people a space to meet up and connect to each other. These initial connections are important in building students’ trust in the peer-supporters in their colleges and departments, and increase awareness of the peer support panel’s existence. Peer-supporters are in a position to offer on the ground support to their peers as they live and work in close proximity to one another. They are also in a strong position to refer students, as appropriate, to professionals and other student groups both within and outside the college/department setting. There are approximately 350 trained peer-supporters at any given time around the university, made up of both undergraduates and graduates.
The Peer Support Programme was developed in recognition of the essential role students play in supporting and encouraging one another on a day-to-day basis throughout their time at university. Students are likely to look to each other first for help in thinking through issues and for emotional support, but there are times when this can leave friends feeling out of their depth, unsure how best to help but anxious about seeking advice for fear of betraying trust.
The Programme seeks to better equip students for this role, enabling them to feel more confident in supporting their peers and more aware of the professional support networks available to them. Since its launch it has been embraced by an Oxford University review as an integral part of its welfare provision.
In order to run effective peer support, it is essential that peer support is delivered safely. Broadly speaking, running peer support safely should encompass; having a recovery-focussed session, having systems in place to effectively signpost people in need of further help and support and ensuring that adequate training and supervision is in place for peer-supporters.
Peer-supporters are required to attend fortnightly peer support group supervision, usually with the trainer who trained them. Attendance is necessary in order to be an active peer-supporter in college. If and when difficult or emergency situations arise, they have a Senior Member who is linked to the programme and can contact their supervisor between supervision sessions.
The Peer support training, delivered by the University Counselling Service gives students a wide range of transferable skills in listening, communicating and relating to others. It aims to help the students’ thinking with regard to independence and interdependence, both important developmental tasks at this stage: how they become independent in their thinking and learn to take responsibility for their decisions, whilst at the same time learning how this fits with being part of and giving to the community in which they live.
Additional skills development in areas of time management, boundary setting and self-awareness are of benefit to them both whilst at university and in future relationships and careers. The 30-hour training programme, delivered in ten three-hour sessions, covers topics including:
There are many benefits of peer support. These can be broken down into the benefits for those receiving the support, the benefits for those providing peer support (peer-supporters) and the benefits for society and the mental health system as a whole.