With rising attrition and declining student mental health, peer support is a growing area of interest for many higher education institutions. Despite being a readily used term, its meaning differs according to the institution running the programme, making it difficult to share best practice in the sector. The aim of this work is to create a shared language and understanding of peer support so that universities can improve their peer support structures in a consistent and strategic way.
The research firstly defines peer support as ‘support provided by and for people with similar conditions, problems or experiences’ (Gulliver & Byrom, 2014: 2) and as a system of giving and receiving help underpinned by respect, shared responsibility and mutual agreement of what is helpful (Mead, Hilton & Curtis, 2001). From one-to-one mentoring through to self-help groups (Solomon, 2004), peer support has many types with both informal and formal approaches. We define four types of peer support in this research with their benefits and limitations explored in detail: peer-run support, peer health education, peer mentoring and peer-assisted learning.
With this understanding, we find that peer support can be an effective approach to improve student mental health, retention, belonging and overall sense of wellbeing for both peer leaders and the students receiving support -when done consistently with staff support and training. We hope this shared language and knowledge will lead to more institutions thinking strategically about how they embed peer support in the student experience and sharing best practice across the sector so that others can follow lead. The first step to this will be a workshop at the December SMaRteN Conference to discuss this paper and work together to explore the question: ‘Looking After Your Mates: How do we define the role of peer supporters in universities?’
If you have any questions about this work or supporting student leaders to improve university communities’ wellbeing in general, contact Julia Haas, the King’s College London Students’ Union (KCLSU) Wellbeing Coordinator at email@example.com
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