Are you a student in residence who wishes there was someone you could call or text with when you are feeling anxious? Or if someone on your floor is talking about suicide and you don’t know what to do?
Do you wish you had a group that you could learn about anti-racism or anti-oppression with?
Do you wish there was someone you could call that wasn’t the police or security when violence or theft happens?
That is a place where a peer support network could exist!
Building the ability and capacity for your community to respond to needs such as a mental health crisis or specific needs of disabled members of your community is a key part of abolition and alternatives to policing. In this guide, we provide some key elements of how we build peer response and connect you to many great resources. For more information about transformative justice, please visit the info hub!
What is peer support?
A peer support network is a low-barrier social structure that recognises that we have the ability to look after one another without professionals. It is made up of groups of people who gather to share common issues and/or experiences associated with a particular problem, condition, illness, living situations, cultural background, and/or personal circumstance. In a support group, people are able to talk with other folks who are like themselves – people who truly understand what they’re going through and can share the type of practical insights that can only come from that collective experience.
Some of the common characteristics of support groups include:
- They are made up of peers – people who share a collective experience and create a group based in trust, respect, and deep relationship to one another
- They may have a discussion leader or facilitator
- They tend to be fairly small in size, to better allow everyone a chance to talk
- Members can share information, keeping one another up to date on news, skills, strategies, or other things of interest to that group
Although much of the literature and resources that exist are for mental health or those effected by a particular health condition, there are many types of peer support groups:
- Reading and discussion clubs
- Food and childcare sharing circles
- Those you call as an alternative to police
- People you phone to help get groceries or medicine
- Homework and study groups
Why create it? What does it do?
Perhaps one of the most well known peer support structures in social movements is Mia Mingus’ pod-mapping (this link has detailed information about podmapping and a worksheet for creating your pods). They describe the “pod” as “a group of people who you can go to if violence, harm, or abuse has happened to you, if you caused harm, or if you have witnessed harm,” which can be built for specific situations or circumstances (for instance you may want to have a different pod to respond to a mental health crisis than one that can help with a protest or getting groceries). Making a pod map asks you to take the time to sit down as an individual, group, or collective to think about who you would call instead of the police, if there was a crisis, or when there is lack of access to ongoing, reliable, or suitable mental health supports.
Like other practices that exist in the family of community care or mutual aid, peer support networks allow people to get together to meet each other’s needs, with the shared understanding that the systems we live in are not meeting our needs. Mutual aid systems recognise we can meet our needs together without waiting for those in positions of power or with a professional designation to do the right thing. They also function to build and strengthen our communities and function as a space for ongoing accountability and learning within our social movements.
Many people ask abolitionists, what do you do when something bad happens and you need to call the police? Creating and calling upon a peer support network is one of the answers to this question.
For more information about pod mapping and transformative justice, check out these resources:
Mia Mingus of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (1 hour video)
INCITE! Community Accountability Discussions (collection of videos on a variety of topics related to community building and accountability in the face of violence and harm)
What do you need to do to start a peer support group?
So now that you know what a peer support network is, how do you create one? All peer support networks will be created and function in a different way, because they are made by and for the communities and people using them. Some will be very formal groups, whereas others will be very informal, or some will start formally and after a time shift to an on-call basis.
However, there are some basic things to consider when starting a peer support network:
- See if one already exists! You might be able to form a chapter of that group or learn from them! Many peer support networks exist at local, provincial, and national levels.
- Identify your community: Think about who you would trust to meet a need you may have at that moment like getting groceries or helping with homework. What about who you would turn to if you or another member of your community was experiencing one form of violence or a threat of violence.
- Form an organising committee or leadership team: this is not a hierarchy, but rather a group of people who can support meetings happening, communications within the group or between other groups, and can help facilitate any training that needs to happen
- Think about the focus of the group: what are your hopes? What do you need the group to do? Who is the group for? Create goal, objectives and priorities.
- Create community guidelines. How do you expect one another to behave in this network? What are your values?
- Figure out logistics: how often do you meet? Who will you welcome as members? How do you recruit members? how will you communicate with each other (link tree? signal group? facebook group?)
Want to learn more about starting a peer support network? Here are some more resources!
Starting and maintaining an effective peer support group (this 1 hour video is a great webinar for talking about overcoming the challenges of getting a group going!)
10 steps to build your peer support program (infographic)
The Self Help Alliance Manual for Starting and Maintaining a Peer Support Group (34 pages)
Want to talk more about how to start a peer support group? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with someone to talk through the process or connect you to those who can support you better!
Depending on the purpose of your group, you will be engaged in a range of support activities that require skills you may already have or that you need to grow. Once you have your peer support network identified, a wonderful activity is to determine who has what skills and build opportunities for skill-sharing within your group.
There are also a number of trainings that occur in the local area and online that can support you in building the skills you need in your network. (psst – SFPIRG can offer training on some of these topics and connect you to other experts or organisations as well!). There are also many ways to learn together informally like starting a podcast listening group or reading and discussion group that focus on mental health issues or abolition.
No matter what kind of training you are doing, think about ways that you might be able to do this work in groups so you have space to discuss and unpack.
Useful skills for your group to grow into might include:
- De-escalation training
- Basic first aid training
- Responding to disclosures of violence
- Conflict resolution or reconciliation
- Emotional self-awareness
- Unconscious bias
- Supporting through risk of suicide
- Making boundaries
- Mindfulness practices
For online trainings on these skills and more you can visit:
PeerConnect BC’s online training modules
Peer Support Canada handbook (they also offer an online certification program at a cost):
Toward the Heart online training modules
Important Questions to Ask About Peer Support (popular article)
Peer Support as a Social Justice Movement (one hour video)
Peer Support as the Future of Mental Health Support (academic article)