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Peer Support and Mentoring


Peer support and mentoring is important to everyone.It helps us through hard times, adds to the celebration in good times, and helps us relax in between. It gives us additional perspectives on ourselves and can help us move forward. It is used by schools, growing businesses, the military, learning networks such as this, and in everyday friendships. It is even used by gangs. Getting the right sort of peer support and mentoring for the people you work with is important to helping them overcome barriers along the pathway to work and to keep their confidence up once they are in work. It is an essential and often overlooked ingredient to helping people discover and achieve their potential.

Peer support groups give people the opportunity to develop understanding friendships that they can keep and use in everyday life, and not be dependent on services.

  • By "peer support" we mean people in a similar situation working alongside each other to improve their own and each other's situation and development.
  • By "peer mentoring" we mean someone who has been through a similar situation and succeeded working with individuals or groups to help them move forward along their own path.

Peer support and mentoring can play a unique role in helping people overcome a range of barriers and move forward in life. We found several key ways, which we explore in more detail in the rest of this section.

  • Credibility improves engagement
  • Seeing someone with a similar background who has succeeded is motivating
  • Having someone genuinely support you keeps you going
  • True understanding is a gateway to personal development
  • Having a sense of value and healthy relationship develops self-esteem

This section explores the insights and lessons identified by staff, mentors and service users at five projects around Scotland. This work was funded by The Scottish Government and undertaken by Light on the Path in 2010.

Please click here to access the full 'If you could do it, so can I' - Peer Support and Mentoring Report.

Key Lessons

Peer support and mentoring has unique role to play

  • Knowing your mentor has "been there" and has a deep understanding of your experience speeds up the transformation process - this gives credibility to the promise of moving forward, sheds deeper insight and provides an example of what's possible.
  • Seeing what others can achieve demonstrates their unique potential beyond their problem. This also helps clients uncover their own potential, talents and interests and build on those.
  • Having someone who really understands helps people develop trust and openness - which leads to self-awareness and readiness to transform and follow their own healthy potential.
  • Peer support and mentoring recognises the distinct human being inside and connects at a more personal level - on all sides - socially and more professionally.

You can use peer support and mentoring all along the client journey

Peer support and mentoring can be used in different ways to support people as they progress towards and into work.

  • Engaging prospective clients - People who have made significant progress themselves by using a service can encourage others to take part by explaining, "If I could do it, so can you"
  • Developing supportive friendships and social links - For isolated people this is a critical part of feeling healthy, happy and confident, and peers are better suited for this than staff advisers who have other commitments.
  • Showing the way forward - Mentors can act as role models and help people develop both within groups on one-to-one
  • Providing development opportunities for clients - Once clients have come to the end of a training programme, they may look for additional activity and a way to help others. Mentoring others can give them a progression route towards work.
  • Mentoring, as needed, while job hunting and once in the workplace - Having a mentor to keep in touch with and go to for support can make the difference between sustaining work and giving up.

Peer support and mentoring can play a role in community development

The more people develop a sense of supporting others - either as peers in a group together or as a mentor skillfully helping others - the more their confidence grows and they tend to want to get more involved and help more people. To further boost their connections to the wider community and employability skills, community projects are often a logical next step. Groups of mentors or clients can also get involved as part of their plan of development activity. Developing mentors can be a valuable resource for collaborating with your partners. Our example projects do this in three ways:

  • Building community involvement into the development programme;
  • Creating new groups for clients to take part in and supporting them to start their own groups; and
  • Using groups within the project as a stepping stone to wider community activities.

Train and support your peer mentors

Peers within a group can often make their own ground rules about how to show respect for each other. Mentors have a more responsible role, so they need training and ongoing support. Useful training includes:

  • Boundaries, confidentiality, listening and clear roles - supporting others to make their own best choices
  • Understanding issues they might encounter - suicide prevention, health issues
  • Assessing clients' needs and progress - using different tools for evaluation

You can learn more about courses from the Scottish Mentoring Network Formal and informal support structures are also important to ensure mentors do not take on clients' problems and they are equipped to give the right support. Supervision sessions, team meetings, chats at the end of the day and complementary therapies can all help. Encouraging mentors' own further development is also important. It can be useful to have a database of case studies of how to address different situations that arise, and access to mentoring networks and a range of people to talk to about their experience.

Getting it right

  • Flexibility is critical - allow different types of support to suit different needs
  • Create an environment conducive to peer support where people can open up.
  • Give your mentors a successful model to work to
  • Make sure you have the right match between mentor and client - if it does not work, change it.
  • Remember that mentors are on their own journey too and that they need plenty of support and development opportunities to fit their interests and strengths.

Fitting it into your own plans

Peer support and mentoring can fit into any stage of your work with clients where they seem to be stuck, seeking social support from staff as much as advice, or when they simply do not believe there is potential for them to move beyond their current circumstances.

While peer support and especially mentoring take time and training, it can ultimately increase the progression rate for clients, improve the sustainability of their progress and meet clients' needs in a way that ordinary staff's roles do not allow for. By helping people genuinely move on, it will reduce the demands on all the support service staff working with them, make their jobs more satisfying and free them to support more clients.

Where you can employ people with similar backgrounds to your clients, your service's credibility will also improve. All in all, peer support and mentoring is excellent value for money. Keep in mind, however, that it is only one part of the puzzle. Be imaginative and consider how mentors can also get involved in activities that address other barriers to work, such as awareness-raising among employers.

The Client Journey

As peer support is a basic ingredient in life, it is not surprising that it can help all along the client pathway. People who have a healthy support network around them already will not need this support from the project, but those with a negative or weak social network will need help at many stages.
Engaging prospective clients
Getting target clients to even consider a new service is always a challenge, especially for people with very low confidence, mental health problems or other problems, such as addictions, which they would prefer to hide. Outreach by staff makes services more accessible, but peers' testimony and encouragement can give prospective clients faith in the service and courage to try to make a change in life.

Knocking on doors - Community Renewal uses pairs of community animators with a similar background to their target audience to knock on doors. They then develop a relationship with the householders and help people with problems start thinking about moving forward. Animators are seen more as "one of us", and their supportive, listening approach gives people comfort and courage to start moving forward.

Drop in service for prospective participants - Aberdeen Foyer runs the Lifeshaper programme for people ready to move on from addictions and related homelessness. But for those not yet ready for the full programme, they have a drop-in where prospective clients can talk to graduates of Lifeshaper who have moved on to the advanced programme. These graduates talk about the impact the programme can have and start to provide mentoring support to the prospective clients.
Developing supporting friendships and social links
For people who feel misunderstood, finding supportive friendships can be difficult, but these friendships are key to their progress and wellbeing. This can work in different ways.

The Orbit Approach runs a range of activities, many of which are led by service users who have a talent to share. Coming to the groups gives people a chance to meet people with similar experiences and to make friends. These friendships become a key part of participants' self-development process. Friendly discussions on hill walks are also an important social resource for participants.

Community Renewal's animators provide friendship, but they also help people make friends with neighbours with similar interests. Community action groups and family fun days are two common sorts of activities that help people move from isolation to an active part of the community. These become lasting social links within the community that clients and others can tap into throughout their personal development and beyond.

Within structured programmes, friendships can form between people keen to move in the same direction. Apex has found participants of its Think Again programme often stay talking after the staff have gone home and one group even planned a camping trip together at the end of their first week.
Role models to show the way forward
Mentors can act as role models and help people develop both within groups and one-to-one. They might be visitors, group leaders or playing a part in a group.

Apex often invites guest speakers who had a history of offending and then turned their life around and are now successfully working. These success stories show group participants what is possible and give them a chance to ask for secrets of success.

In Aberdeen Foyer's Lifeshaper programme, several of the support workers are graduates of the programme who have gone on to do further training and development. The range of their different experiences in recovering from addictions and their mix of personalities helps to give participants a well-rounded and authentic perspective on how to move forward.

At Next Steps, mentors take part in the 12 week group programme, providing a role model and extra support for the group. Their presence reminds participants of what is possible and gives them ready access to tips and advice, as well as personal encouragement.
Next Steps also offers individual mentors to give more tailored one-on-one support. Participants may have a series of mentors along their journey, depending on their needs as they progress.
Providing development opportunities for clients
Once clients have come to the end of a training programme, they may look for additional activity and a way to help others. Mentoring others can give them a progression route towards work. Ongoing development as a peer mentor continually builds confidence, coping strategies and is a good reminder of the journey travelled so far. It also reduces risk of "taking it all for granted."

Next Steps and Aberdeen Foyer have found that at the end of their programmes, participants are often keen to find ways to help others and to gain a range of experience. Mentoring roles provide an opportunity to combine both of these, while also enriching the project's work. At Next Steps, it is an option open to graduates. At Aberdeen Foyer, community involvement is an integrated part of the Advanced Lifeshaper programme.

At the Orbit Approach, the mentoring is less formal, but still important. More established participants in hillwalking groups or other activities such as allotments can help others to take part in the activity in an effective and enjoyable way. This gives them value focused on a particular interest and opens them up to helping anyone comes along to the activity.
Mentoring, as needed, while job hunting and once in the workplace
Having a mentor to keep in touch with and go to for support can make the difference between sustaining work and giving up. Next Steps' mentors can stay with clients all the way into a job and keep them feeling on track. We are aware of another project that placed young people into public sector work placements and mentors at the workplace also played a key role in helping people settle in and feel secure.

Training & Support for Mentors

Peers within a group can often make their own ground rules about how to show respect for each other. Mentors have a more responsible role, so they need training and ongoing support.

Training for peer mentors
Training should be ongoing, from induction onwards, and should be refreshed at regular intervals, as new problems and situations will always arise. Training can include the following sorts of topics.

  • Boundaries, confidentiality, listening and roles - supporting others to make their own best choices
  • Group work skills - particularly for those working with groups
  • Basic counselling - to support people through problems that arise
  • Health and safety - especially useful for animators who go to people's houses or mentors who meet up with people one-on-one
  • Knowledge on issues the people they support might encounter - suicide prevention, sexual health, first aid, and other practical skills such as healthy cooking
  • Assessing clients' needs and progress - using different tools for evaluation

As the mentoring is role is part of the mentor's development toward work later, they should be encouraged to go on any internal or external courses that they feel will help their development. Any sort of skills they which to pursue can probably benefit the client group or project - for instance, cooking, video production and complementary therapies may not be standard employability support skills, but they can be used to enrich the work of the project.  

Next Steps has their own accredited Befriending and Mentoring training, which is refreshed every three years. Aberdeen Foyer uses STRADA training. Community Renewal  uses internal training. Scottish Mentoring Network can also link you to accredited peer mentoring training.

Support for peer mentors
Support for peer mentors is critical. Not only are they working with other clients, but they are on their own journey and you want to keep them safe and properly supported. There are several key elements to good support.

  • Clear role - Make sure they are integrated into work structures - taking part in team meetings, case conferences about their client with other professionals - so everyone understands their role and takes them seriously.
  • Regular talking and listening - Formal and informal support structures are also important to ensure mentors do not take on clients' problems and they are equipped to give the right support. Supervision sessions, team meetings, chats at the end of the day and having a phone number to call can all help.
  • Opportunities to relieve stress - Access to training like art and music, Complementary therapies, free haircuts and facials are all relaxing opportunities for mentors to unwind and feel looked after.
  • A no-blame, supportive culture - There is always the chance that mentors will have low periods or will slip themselves. They need to know that they always be supported emotionally and backed, even if they do make a mistake.
  • Where possible, keep examples of mentoring good practice - As mentors encounter different situations, it can be useful to have examples of how other mentors have successfully handled similar situations. Mentoring networks can also help with this.
  • Depending on the format of the mentoring, for instance if it is voluntary, you may want to consider putting a limit on the time that mentors can spend each week, so that they leave time to pursue other opportunties.
  • Ensure the client recognises their need and feels in control, even though the mentor may be doing more of the work in the earlier stages. Making time - support from staff is important, but encourage mentors to ask for support at a time of the day when staff will be standing still long enough to really listen. Catching someone on the way out the door can reduce the quality of support they can give. If the staff member is very busy, they can set aside clear times for catching up with mentors.


Getting it Right

These were the key lessons that emerged in our research, and we explore each one in more detail below.

Flexibility is critical - allow different types of support to suit different people's needs
People benefit from a mix of support to use in different ways - the camaraderie of peers at the same level and the example and drive of a mentor. You might even want to add befrienders for one-to-one social activities or advocates for moral support with important meetings.

Help people engage with peer support
Our mentors gave the following tips.

  • "The main thing is to find ways to allow people to open up - outdoor actvities are great for that! You can do a lot of work in the office, but you do much better outdoor (allotments, hill wlaking, etc). But confidentiality is very important!"
  • "You need to help them build trust in themselves and each other, admit that it is okay to rely on other people - team building activities are really good for that."
  • "A common interest or common understanding is the foundation of good peer support."
  • "Sharing problems and getting feedback from other people - makes you feel equal, not different."
  • "Smaller groups work better than large ones - we start with 10 people but there are always people dropping off."

Give your mentors a model for success
The support the peers give to each other in a group is not always enough to help overcome problems. Mentors can provide that extra drive and understanding of the possibilities. To work successfully with their clients, mentors need to be well trained and be able to:

  • Make them feel good about themselves - compliments are not part of the culture in many parts of Scotland, so people may be unaware of their strengths. Identifying them and pointing out how they can be valuably used can help people take on board their strengths and relate them to career potential.
  • Make the client aware of what they are going through, recognising their steps and achievements - being conscious of the process deepens and speeds up the learning and development process.
  • Build up the client's sense of responsibility - "At the beginning the mentor does 95% of the work and the client only 5%, but if all works well, at the end the client ends up doing all the work. You only need to do baby steps, don't push; let them find their own pace. Most importantly, listen!"
  • You need to let them progress at their own pace - "Don't push them! Simply show them the light at the end of the tunnel."
  • Encourage independence - "You have to develop a relationship, but be aware of not getting too involved, as clients need to move on and not become dependent."

Make sure you have the right match between mentor and client
Consider the personalities of the people you are matching, the types of problems they have each dealt with, and the age of person the client is likely to respect or relate to.

  • Some young people will only relate to and respect other young people, while others are quite interested in having someone a bit older to look up to.
  • Mentors who have been through drug addictions might have more useful practical experience for a client with a drug addiction than a mentor who had alcohol problems, and vice versa. Similarly, people with particular types of anxieties or ways of dealing with them could help each other more than people with completely different mental health problems.
  • The most important aspect, however, is the rapport. If the mentor and client are not getting on, it can undermine both their progress, so change the match.

Remember that mentors are on their own journey as well and that they need lots of support too and development opportunities to fit their interests and strengths Mentors, and indeed other supportive peers, can provide a richness to the client's experience and propel them along their path more effectively than support from staff alone. However, they need to be looked after and valued for their own development.

  • Make sure mentors' support role is additional, not gap-filling, and that they are given responsibility than it is reasonable for them to cope with.
  • Play to their strengths and give them opportunities to develop that are in line with their interests and talents.
  • Make sure they are well trained and supported, as described in the section on training and support for mentors.
  • If they would like to work within the organisation, encourage them to apply for internal positions that arise or seek funding to create new ones.
  • If mentoring is a stepping stone to something entirely different that they would like to do, make sure they keep developing their skills and contacts in the other area too.
  • Always see each mentor as a person and help them develop their potential


Case Studies

To give you an introduction to the different approaches, you can first gain a taste of each project's use of peer support and mentoring below, which work south from Fraserburgh to Edinburgh.

Lifeshaper Programme
Aberdeen Foyer uses peer support in their main 12-week Lifeshaper programme to help young people recovering from homelessness and addictions to encourage each other to try new things and keep moving forward. Trained mentors with the same background work with each group and tell them what is possible, set an example, and help participants explore their own skills and potential. In the Advanced Lifeshaper programme, participants support prospective clients to start thinking about changing their life, showing them what is possible and encouraging them. Advanced Lifeshaper participants also take part in a range of community activities.

The Orbit Approach
Dundee Association for Mental Health's Orbit Approach, encourages drop-in participants to try new activities and gradually start sharing their own skills with others by leading or supporting groups. Taking part earns "galaxies" which participants can spend on complementary therapies to improve their sense of wellbeing and look after themselves. People in the groups encourage each other and often develop supportive and understanding friendships. Over time people also gain confidence and emerge as mentors within groups, providing encouragement from a different perspective than staff can. There is no time limit to using the service but people tend to gradually develop more confidence, skills and community connections and move forward. 

Next Steps
Run by Carnegie College, in partnership with many other local organisations, Next Steps does group work with people recovering from addictions and helps them develop confidence, soft skills and a sense of direction. Peer support is key within groups and each group also includes a mentor, who may have used the project earlier. Participants can also opt to have a mentor on a one-to-one basis or to have an advocate with a similar background support them in particular situations, such as a visits from a housing officer. Mentors go through accredited training and must have moved beyond the project themselves for at least six months before they can take part. They are also encouraged to take part in any training courses that interest them and to apply for internal posts.  

Community Renewal
This organisation works in deprived neighbourhoods across Central Scotland, using community animators to knock on doors and warm up hundreds of economically inactive house-holders and put them in contact with a range of local services that come together in a neighbourhood centre. The animators come from similar backgrounds to the people they work with, often the same area, so they have credibility with their clients. Because listening and encouragement are central to their work, they act as mentors providing guidance, support and friendship. The projects also put residents with similar interests together for both social opportunities and community action. By the time Community Renewal is finished working in an area it has created a wealth of local capacity and social supports that will last in the neighbourhood. They also help a large number of people into work.

Think Again
Apex Scotland collaborates with Edinburgh Napier University on this intensive 10-week programme that prepares ex-offenders for further or higher education and helps them overcome barriers. The group dynamic and commitment of participants to try whatever activities come up mean that peers on the course encourage each other to try new things, look at life and themselves differently, and more confidently move forward. Apex also brings in successful people with a similar background to tell their stories of what is possible, answer questions and encourage participants. This one-off mentoring is also helpful.