Peer Support: 3 things we’re learning about creating, running and sustaining peer support networks

Peer support networks bring people together so that they can explore solutions to shared challenges and feel supported by others with similar experiences. CES hosted online workshops on creating, running and sustaining peer support networks for the Reaching Out Supporting Families network of community organisations in Northern Ireland.

The workshops covered the theory of peer support, what has proven to be successful, and tips for facilitating peer support online. The Covid-19 crisis focused the events on virtual peer support using online platforms. At the end of each session we used breakout rooms – splitting the larger group into smaller discussion groups using Zoom – so that the groups could discuss their specific experiences, and what they could take away from the day and use again.

Here are three things we learned from the workshops.

1. Different online platforms suit different forms of peer support

It is important to consider user needs when deciding on the most appropriate networking tool. Peer support networks can be formal or informal - from groups that have official roles and structured activities to peers that meet for casual gatherings. What matters is that the group benefits its members. In the same way, online peer support groups can take different shapes. Text based platforms, such as WhatsApp, Signal, or Slack, are considered networking platforms where you can ‘drop in’ whenever you want, whereas a video call can be more intense and require more focus. On the other hand, video conferencing tools allow you to hear and see who you are communicating with and so can offer more opportunity for human connection. Invite the peer support members to feed back their thoughts on the platform and whether it works for them. Whichever platform you choose, make sure you are comfortable using it.


2. Values and ground rules still apply to online settings

Relationships and trust building are important elements to successful peer support groups. In order to build that sense of trust, some ground rules should be established. Depending on the group, these rules could range from guidance around the type of information shared, to ensuring that what is shared within the group is confidential, to how to virtually raise your hand to avoid speaking over others.

3. It’s important to make online involvement inviting and engaging

For non-virtual peer support groups, something as simple as providing tea and biscuits adds warmth to proceedings. During the workshop discussions, the groups discussed the challenges of emulating this environment virtually. Some suggestions for making peer support groups more engaging included inviting guest speakers to speak to the group, arranging quizzes and organising virtual tea and chats. It was agreed that to create an inviting and engaging environment online, it is important to find a balance between leading the discussion and letting users shape how it turns out.

The image used for this article was made by Daniel Barreto for the United Nations global call out to creators to create artwork in response to the Covid-19 crisis.