How to set up a peer support group

1. Attend a group, in fact attend a few! 

There are plenty of peer support groups out there, in your area and online. It will help to see and feel exactly what peer support can look and feel like in different contexts and attending to different needs. You’ll pick up structural tips on how to run a session, how long they should be and how the room could be orientated (things like this matter!) and practical tips like how to leave space for input, how to reflect and allow others to do the same as well as how to listen effectively.

2. Understand the basic rules of a peer support group, as opposed to therapy. 

Rules is a strong term but there are some guiding principles peer support tends to follow. No direct questioning or advice, no judgement and a non-hierarchal approach. Therapy is a space for one or more people to have their specific needs met in a more directed manner whereas peer support is allowing everyone the space to process, with validation, in a non-judgemental forum.   

3. Decide on your scope of peers, anyone, gender specific, similar trauma experiences – it’s up to you. 

So, you want to set up a peer support group for anyone, or specifically gaming addicts or women over 50? That’s cool – it’s up to you. Just be aware that you’ll need to be comfortable (if you’re leading the sessions) managing that group of people. Also know that you can always change your mind but once you’ve established a community based on an idea, it’ll be harder to change that group and retain the ethos and camaraderie. You can always set up another group! 

4. Get some training or bring in people who know their stuff. 

Yes, anyone can run a peer support group, but it does help to learn a bit about what makes the good ones good. Read, listen, talk to other group leaders, maybe take a course in counselling or talking therapies if you really want to develop your skills and generally never stop wanting to learn. The main reason for this is that maintaining the safeness of a peer support, as a safe space, is something that can take skill, insight and intervention – you want to feel confident that you are able to provide these. 

5. Find a place to do your peer support or go online. 

Some peer support sessions are in church halls, online via Zoom or even in sheds! It doesn’t really matter where a session so long as it’s accessible to your demographic, inclusive and safe and flexible enough to cope with whatever structure you’ve decided upon – a kettle always helps too! Make sure you’ve sourced such a ‘venue’ (or a Zoom licence) and aim to have it in place for a relatively stable period as moving the venue down the line may put people off re-attending (people like familiarity when they’re being vulnerable). 

6. Decide on the structure of the sessions including regularity 

The structure of a peer support session is usually quite simple, and a lot of elements are replicated across lots of different groups. Make sure that whatever structure you decide on fits with the type of attendees you have and what you’re trying to achieve. Complexity will only put barriers between you and the others, your peers, so make sure you are able to work in the way you decide without overthinking it. More importantly, perhaps, than the structure is the regularity of the sessions and making sure that if you say you’re going to be there that you are. Don’t overcommit and make sure you feel able and comfortable to take on the amount of sessions you plan.  

7. Bring along supportive people and learn from the first sessions. 

You will be nervous when you begin, that’s natural and it shows you care. You’d be nervous if it was a game of bingo with people you don’t know, never mind a vulnerable space where you may have some difficult and painful, but also life-affirming(!), conversations. This nervousness will dissipate, and you will gain confidence, but it can help in the early days to bring along willing friends who would be comfortable helping you and the group in the initial stages. Be careful not to bring anyone you don’t feel comfortable being open with as you don’t want to restrict yourself. 

8. Just do it. 

You’ve read this, you’re keen, excited even, to get out there and make a difference and that’s amazing. So now, go back to the top of this list and get going! If you need 1:1 advice, mentoring or to attend some groups then be in touch and we can direct you to the right people. You’re already a special person for wanting to give back in this way and we want to support you as much as we can. 


Written by John Wright – an IMHN Lived Experience representative. You can find John on Twitter @TAIMtoTalk 

Published on September 15, 2021 at 1:16 pm

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