Although mental health difficulties can present at any age, 50% of mental illnesses are established by age 14 and 20% of adolescents can experience a mental health condition in every year (1).
The way we treat and support teenagers with mental health struggles directly impacts the adults they become, so early prevention is key to creating well functioning and resilient adults.
There are already a lot of well publicised methods of mental health treatment that are promoted to young people: talking to a parent, professional or teacher, exercising, journaling, and so on. But one important support network is often less discussed, and this is peer to peer support.
What is peer support?
Peer to peer support is seeking advice, emotional support and confidence in friends and peers around a similar age, background or circumstance.
Peer support can be as casual as a chat with friends, or some schools and organisations have 'peer mentoring' programmes, which involves listening, coaching and safeguarding training for young people to use with their peers. This can look like matching 1:1 peers with mentors, or having designated peer mentors who other young people can reach out to.
How peer support helps
Peer support invites open conversations about mental health. Some young people may feel scared to talk to adults about their stresses and worries as they feel they won't understand or relate, and talking to a friend or peer mentor removes those barriers and creates a relationship built on relativity and understanding.
It also removes a stigma about mental heath in a school or organisation. If peers are aware and open to the difficulties their friends may be facing, it is the first step in early prevention of mental illness. If a young person is met with welcoming support by somebody they relate to without judgement, it may be enough to support them through their difficulties, or it may be a stepping stone to encourage them to seek further help.
Research has shown when older peer mentors work with younger students in helping their school transition and adjustment, it builds confidence, communication, and emotional regulation skills for the younger students. For the peer mentors themselves, it helps develop awareness of their own mental health struggles, perspective taking and empathy (2).
Online peer support
In the age of technology, more and more mental health interventions take place online, and peer support is no exception.
Peer to peer support networks can be set up by schools or organisations, and can be a platform for talking about worries and wellbeing concerns between young people. The main benefit for many users is anonymity- for many young people, talking about their difficulties can be extremely difficult through fear of judgement. Online platforms take this judgement away and allow open and honest conversations.
These sites must be moderated however, to avoid bullying, maintain anonymity, and escalate more urgent concerns.
Peer to peer support is a promising and apparently effective early intervention for wellbeing support in young people. For the individual, it promotes confidence talking about mental health, can signpost and give advice, and offers a layer of support that is different to other routes that involve adults and professionals.
The use of online peer support is especially exciting for the future of mental health treatment: it is more accessible, less risk of judgement, and encourages a wider demographic of users.
And possibly the most important benefit of peer support is the decrease of stigmatisation of mental health in young people. Educating and training young people to not only expect their peers to be experiencing difficulties, but also to know what to say to them, removes so many early barriers that may be the difference in a young person seeking professional help or not.
You can read more about how to set up peer to peer training in your school or establishment here.