Peer Support – part 3 – Theory

Peer support has a long history and has garnered support from many important sources, as illustrated in part 2 of this series. Connecting someone who has survived a suicidal crisis to peers is one of the core values in The Way Forward, which states:

As peers, we can provide social support and a sense of community while also sharing experiential knowledge and practical advice about coping skills, serving as positive role models for others. Furthermore, when we enter the role of helper we also experience benefits.

Many of the approaches are also consistent with increasing hope, timely access to supports, connectedness, and choices for recovery planning, while empowering persons with lived experience as helpers, which challenges negative stereotypes.

However, some wonder about how peer support could help with suicide prevention. Thus, this part covers the theories that tie these two concepts together.

Benefits of peer support
 Social Support and Sense of Community. 

  • Relationships make it easier to deal with stress. (Solomon, 2004)
  • According to the CDC, regular social contact (i.e., social integration) protects against suicidal thoughts and actions. For example, within a supportive group, members often help support the health and wellness of others
  • Connections to groups increase sense of belonging, self-worth, and access to support (Salvatore, 2009)
  • Social connections can offer emotional support, assistance with transportation or other needs, information or advice, and validation about shared experiences (Salzer, 2002)
 Experiential Knowledge and Practical Coping

  • Depends on information and perspectives gained through life experiences. (Solomon, 2004)
  • May be viewed as more valid, beneficial, or practical than the ‘book knowledge’ of professionals (Salzer, 2002)
  • Active approach to learning through the process of sharing common problems and solutions with others.
 Social Learning Theory

  • Behavior change is more likely with individuals seen as ‘credible’ role models. (Salzer, 2002)
  • Peers can model successful coping skills and strategies that are proven even under stressful circumstances. Peers can also provide a social influence that encourages behaviors like seeking additional help and support (e.g., mental or behavioral health services) (CDC)
 Social Comparison Theory

  • People try to find others with similar conditions (i.e., peers) to help create a sense of normalcy. (Salzer, 2002)
  • Interacting with peers allows people to find role models and be more hopeful about their own possible outcomes.
  • Peers are in a unique position to help validate and normalize the impact that living through a suicidal crisis can have on a person’s life. (Salvatore, 2009)
 The Helper Therapy Principle

  • The person offering help has a positive and rewarding experience that is beneficial. Peer supports give persons with lived experience an explicit opportunity to experience those benefits. (Riessman, 1990)
  • Peers can gain a sense of self-competency, equality in giving and receiving, reinforced knowledge gains, and social approval for being helpers. (Salzer, 2002).

Coming up:

Part 4 – Research making it a promising practice

Part 5 (Finale) – Why suicide prevention is failing, and how peers can help