THE BLOG
22/02/2016 09:29 GMT | Updated 19/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Peer Education - Fashion or Foundation for Learning?

You'd think that it's a no-brainer that young people would want support from their peers. After all, the process of growing up is one of working out who we are, the discovery of a social and psychological identity through interaction with our family, significant adults, experience in social situations particularly at school, peer groups and friendships.

In recent years Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat create an additional sphere of virtual interaction where many adults fear, or are forbidden by their children, to tread.

The model for therapy for youngsters with the greatest problems has always included group work which is a form of peer support and peer learning, albeit with adults in control of the milieu. This is because the developmental process is the measure and the means of supporting young people to deal with their problems and move on. It's a force for life, for living, and good therapists understand that its far more powerful than imparting any amount of adult wisdom to young people on its own can be. That understanding permeates all sorts of work with young people, whether it's explicitly therapeutic, as in an art therapy group in a psychiatric inpatient unit, or implicitly as in doing a residential week in the Brecon Beacons, or working as a volunteer in a youth service with other young people.

But it wasn't until about 18 months ago, working at the Mental Health Foundation, that I encountered an iteration which took me in a different direction. It arose through two impulses.

The first was that the Foundation had developed lots of peer support and peer training work with adults and older people, as well as in other projects with young people.

The second was meeting young people through my work, who had supported close friends when they were dealing with various mental health problems. This led me to believe that young people ought to be further empowered to support one another with mental health issues. Many teens have told me about the thirst for knowledge that was out there, people on Twitter and on Facebook who followed them because they had had the courage to blog about the issue.

I went to talk to an old friend and colleague, Yvonne Anderson. Yvonne had a background as a teacher, a psychologist, and a person who always tested everything that she produced in the crucible of young people's involvement and co-production. Yvonne explained that despite all the practice described above there was little strong evidence about the effectiveness of peer to peer support in improving young people's mental health. We thought that by getting young people to teach a short mental health curriculum to other young people we could create a group process which challenged myths and stigma, and helped young people to support each other effectively.

Highgate School were interested and hugely supportive. We and their very engaged assistant head, Patrick Johnston, wanted to be socially inclusive, and Highgate brought a group of state funded schools with whom they collaborate, in as partners. The charity Place2Be, which provides counselling in 250 schools nationally, also joined us. Through the autumn term last year, we met with groups of young people aged 11-12 (year 7's) and 16-17 (year 12's) with a view to the older young people co-producing a curriculum they would teach to the year 7s in their schools.

Together with the young people we have produced a curriculum and lesson plans, and we are at the nail biting point of young people teaching starting to happen. We want, and will have, a rigorous evaluation of the impact of the lessons on participants' wellbeing, school connectedness, and learning. If the impacts are positive, we will make a toolkit nationally available at low cost, and provide support to schools to collaborate in a socially inclusive and mutually supportive way. And we will go on to co-produce further curricular materials for use with other age groups in the same way.

We are strongly committed to the concept of well-resourced and led schools whether in the state or the independent sector, being supported to provide local leadership and resources to schools facing a greater level of demographic challenge. By doing so they exemplify the qualities of altruism and compassion for humanity that they should want to evoke in their pupils. Young people benefit by mixing together and understanding that mental health is something that we all share and want to optimise.

The biggest learning for us all has been the level of creativity and commitment which young people have brought to this process. This strengthens our belief that peer support is something which will help develop young people's connectedness and sense of responsibility for each other, and effectively address stigma about mental health issues, something which remains stubbornly pervasive, in spite of the excellent Time to Change programme. You can follow the progress of the project by going to our blog here www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog.