The potential benefits of Peer Mentoring

12 March 2024
Christina Tsaliki MSc, Counselling in Psychology in Education, Health & Work, UOA Faculty member of the NYC Psychology Department, student counsellor and certified Peer Mentoring Practitioner/Educator
The potential benefits of Peer Mentoring

What is Peer Counseling?

Peer counseling or Mentoring is a system of giving and receiving help between people of similar age and social identity and is based on the basic principles of mutual respect, responsibility and understanding. The word "Peer" in Greek does not convey very well what we want to say. It is the translation of the English Peer and symbolizes people who are in the same life phase or coping with the same life transition. Classmates in a school, but also students of a University of all years, are classmates. Peer is the 18-year-old freshman and the 35-year-old who comes to the same department to study as a mature graduate student.

Research in this field has shown that people facing similar difficulties can understand each other better and offer mutual emotional and practical support compared to those who are not in a similar situation or compared to mental health professionals. In particular, it is a fact that people who share similar experiences can better relate to each other and therefore offer experiential empathy and more genuine support and has been shown to be a determinant of the effectiveness of peer psycho-social support. It has also been found that people who have gone through similar experiences are able to offer each other practical advice and suggestions for coping strategies that professionals do not suggest or may not even know about (Lekka, 2015).

Peer counselors exist and work within all age groups and for a wide range of human situations. Peer support is based on the need for social solidarity that exists in all societies. It empowers participants and shows them ways to help themselves, offers opportunities for learning and re-frames negative perceptions and thoughts. It is considered one of the most useful ways in which people can help their fellow human beings, actively listening and following them, communicating, helping them share their concerns and thus feel better.

Benefits of Peer Counseling-Mentoring

Peer counseling helps both those receiving the services of peer counselors and the counselors themselves, in developing personal and social skills. Discussions, aimed at psychological support in a friendly environment and under encouraging conditions, have been found to increase the physical and mental health well-being of those involved (Raphael & Dohrenwend, 1987), contributing to the development of their personal and social skills, as well as to the formation of their identity and autonomy, especially during the period of emerging adulthood.

The benefits that peer counselors themselves derive from their participation include: greater self-belief and self-esteem (Switzer & Simmons, Dew, Regalski & Wang, 1995), greater sense of responsibility, greater appreciation for fellow human beings, greater satisfaction because they contribute to the better quality of life of their environment, but also great satisfaction because they learn ways to better manage and mediate conflicts (Cowie & Jennifer, 2008; Stanley & McGrath, 2006 and spontaneously seek help without hesitation, when needed (Bandura, Millard, Peluso & Ortman, 2000). Regarding the recipients of this support, the existence of close relationships with people in the peer group is an important source of emotional support that can remove even the most serious consequences of stress (Denis, 2003).


Support for Students in Higher Education

Emerging adulthood is an exciting time of identity formation and personal growth, but it is also a difficult time of stressful transitions and for many, the emergence of mental health problems. The mental health of university students has become particularly worrying, with students reporting an increase in anxiety and depression year-on-year, exacerbated by the 'triple pandemic' of COVID-19, the deepening of vast social inequalities and widespread economic insecurity.

Young adults have been shown to have a powerful impact on one another, specifically on well[1]being measures (Kirsch et al, 2014, Reniers et al, 2017). Multiple studies have shown that young people turn to each other when experiencing distress (Healthy Minds Study, 2021, Dooley & Fitzgerald, 2012) and report having been helped by their friends. A survey conducted in July 2022 by Mary Christie Institute, indicated near-universal interest (95%) in some type of peer support program, though there was significant variation in interest between the five types of peer support programs explored: peer education; peer listening; peer support groups; peer coaching; and peer counseling.

Today's students are emerging as part of their generation's solution to mental health issues, with a remarkable willingness to help each other and face their problems bravely and honestly. The increased altruism and reduced stigma experienced by today's Gen Z has created a proliferation of peer-led mental health support services. Colleges and universities are increasingly recognizing that the prevalence of self-reported mental health problems among students calls for population-based, public health strategies, including expanding the circle of support. Peer counseling can be a "bridge" to professional counseling services and can help students with no prior therapeutic experience enter a new community of care (Davis & Fritze, 2020).

Many colleges have peer counseling programs to provide more options for mental health resources on their campuses. These programs train students to help other students, like the one at the University of California-Berkeley that has been operating successfully since the late 1960s (UC Berkeley). In Greece there were initially 2 pilot programs of voluntary peer mentoring, at University of Athens-UOA (''By students- for students''), both with online support in the form of forums or live sessions on the University campus (Lekka, 2015)

Types of peer support

Peer counseling support, as applied in a variety of contexts and across age groups, has proven to be of critical benefit to all involved. The term "peer support" would be more accurate, because under this title can be included the many and varied activities undertaken by peers or peers beyond counseling, such as: mediators, mentors, peer advocates, peer counselors, helpers in learning or professional matters (peer tutors) or facilitators in peer mental health and well being groups.

The NYC Department of Psychology is currently undertaking a pilot study training programme  in peer mentoring for NYC students.

Indicative References

  • Badura, B., Amy & Millard, Michele & Peluso, Eugenio & Ortman, Nicole. (2000). Effects of Peer Education Training on Peer Educators: Leadership, Self-Esteem, Health Knowledge, and Health Behaviors. Journal of College Student Development. 41.
  • Davis, K. and Fritze, D. 2020. Young People’s Mental Health Report 2020
  • Dennis, C.L. (2003) Peer support within a health care context A concept analysis. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 40, 321-332.
  • Dooley, B., and Fitzgerald, A. (2012). My world survey. National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland
  • Kirsch, D. J., Pinder-Amaker, S. L., Morse, C., Ellison, M. L., Doerfler, L. A., & Riba, M. B. (2014). Population-based initiatives in college mental health: Students helping students to overcome obstacles. Current Psychiatry Reports, 16(12), 1-8.\
  • Lekka, F., Efstathiou, G. &  Kalantzi-Azizi, A. (2015) The effect of counselling-based training on online peer support, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 43:1, 156-170, DOI: 10.1080/03069885.2014.959472
  • Mcgrath, H & Noble, T. (2003). Supporting positive pupil relationships: Research to practice. Marcus & Sanders-Reio. 27. 10.53841/bpsecp.2010.27.1.79.
  • Switzer, G. E., Simmons, R. G., Dew, M. A., Regalski, J. M., & Wang, C.-H. (1995). The effect of a school-based helper program on adolescent self-image, attitudes, and behavior.  The Journal of Early Adolescence, 15(4), 429–455.

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