Discussion on terminology

The terminology in the field of peer work reflects the diversity of varied approaches.  There are numerous different terms and definitions on different types of peer work, showing a myriad of definitions and debates:  peer education, peer-to-peer work, peer engagement, peer counselling, peer learning, peer teaching, peer-led activities, peer-driven interventions, natural helping, peer involvement, peer delivery, peer development, peer support work, peer participation, self-help, peer involvement, peer-based, self-help organisations, et cetera, et cetera.

There are endless debates on the correct use of the right terminology.  The terminology and distinctions between the various methods are sometimes a minefield of heated debates among academics, activists and peers.  These debates often illustrate the complexity and political sensitivities of the  involvement of others than clinicians and professionals in policy and practice.

In general, we prefer to focus on genuine involvement and the maximum implementation of ‘meaningful’, rather than to lose focus by discussing the minutiae of the technical terminology.

The key principles of good quality, meaningful involvement can be found in the section titled ‘Key principles’.  WHAT IS.....?/Key principles



Peer support is NOT:

  • clinical support, an expert educating a layperson, someone who knows supporting the one who doesn’t know.  Peer support is given among equals.  It is about sharing, coaching, suggesting and offering options rather than enforcing one’s opinion.
  • about just being friends and being supportive because you like each other.  Peer support builds on similar mutual experiences and understanding, building trust and the willingness to learn and grow.  It comes from a shared understanding, lifestyle and cultural experiences.  It is recognising/identifying with ‘having been there and done that’, knowing what ‘that’ is, and identifying with a feeling.
  • about simply helping and supporting someone to continue what is currently being done.  Peer support is a way to support or coach people to look ahead, to help each other move beyond perceived limitations, old patterns and to overcome existing or future barriers to change.

I overcame 7 years of heroin addiction, criminal behavior and incarceration through the help of individuals just like me. I created an organization that utilizes peer delivered services that has helped thousands of drug addicted and disease affected New Yorkers and helped establish the efficacy of peer services in the US.

Howard Josepher, runs a drug program Exponents in New York







Defining peer support

We want to avoid an endless discussion on using the 100% correct terms. The definitions below, of words frequently used in this website, describe our views and insights and are part of work in progress.
As a working definition for peer support, describing the main aspects, we use:

“a freestanding initiative or a collaboration between community members and an agency, aiming at meaningful involvement of peers and based on principles of mutuality and empowerment.”

Other useful descriptions of peer support are:

  • “In peer support people come together with the intention of changing unhelpful patterns, getting out of ‘stuck’ places, and building relationships that are respectful, mutually responsible, and potentially mutually transforming.  In other words people come to a peer support program because it feels safe and accepting.” Copeland and Mead, 2004
  • “Within the harm reduction context, a peer is a person who has experienced situations similar to those faced by the clients an agency serves.  This means a peer worker may be hired because of his/her present or past street involvement, age, sexual identity, life-situation, even specific type of substance use (just to name a few).  Generally, a peer has some kind of 'inside knowledge' through his/her experience that can have a positive result in providing services to a particular group.  In addition to experiential knowledge, peers can bring credibility and trust to an agency in ways that regular service providers may find difficult because users may distrust and avoid contact with ‘official helpers’.” Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force, Peer Manual, 2003
  • “The so-called peer method is a method by which members from the target group are included in health promotion activities and communicate a preventive message (knowledge, insight, skills and attitude) with other members of the target group. The method requires active participation of the peers, both in formulation of the message and the way in which these will be communicated with fellow peers.” Trimbos Institute, Consensus-note on Peer Projects, 2002