The origins of peer support

What are we talking about?

This is an old Anglo-Saxon concept (1930) which is said to be the origin of the term “Peer” in the USA with the creation of “Alcoholic Anonymous” (circle of alcoholics anonymous) promoting dialogue and solidarity (“peer”) between its members.

Peer support was first developed in the field of mental health, which is based on “the idea of the recognition of the civil and social rights of users and patients, but also on the recognition of experiential knowledge, or even the expertise of lived experience“. Eve Gardien defines peer support as “the transmission of experience by autonomous disabled people for disabled people seeking more autonomy, with the aim of reinforcing the awareness of disabled people on their possibilities, their rights and their duties“.

Then, from the 1960s onwards, the Independent Living movement adopted a tradition of ‘self-care’ and ‘self-health’:

       ✅For self-care, it is a set of services not provided by health professionals

       ✅Self-health is a lifestyle adopted by patients to maintain their health beyond the intervention of the medical profession.

It was during this period that a profound change of vision took place in the relationship between the medical field and people with disabilities, for example. We move from a problem seen as “individual” to a problem generated by the environment. The ecosystem of the person as a whole is apprehended. This is how, during the 1990s, the following notions emerged in France: peer helpers, self-support or peer emulation.

This lasting questioning of the “patient-caregiver” relationship led to various events in the medico-social sector (launch of HIV prevention campaigns in the 1980s, creation of the Patients in Psychiatry Federation in 1992 and then the Mutual Aid Group (GEM)). Following the AIDS epidemic, many “self-support” associations were created. They employ patients who are themselves ill as HIV prevention workers.

Despite the establishment of numerous actions and mechanisms related to the notion of peer support, the concept of peer support was still struggling to emerge at that time.  In Canada, on the other hand, since the 1990s, the concept of peer support has been taken seriously into consideration. In 2010, experiential knowledge is part of the decision-making process in many mental health institutions to improve professional practices. Belgium, Switzerland and Denmark have integrated peer helpers into their professional practices and organisations.

In the case of France, it is a latecomer to the issue, although the terms and practices are moving in the right direction.

Example of application

Today, peer support is clearly established as an important objective of the French five-year plan on housing first and homelessness. Among the 60 measures published in the roadmap of this plan in reference, measure number 35 sets the following specific objectives

   ✅ Develop peer support practices and the recognition of experience within support structures and teams;

   ✅ Create and disseminate information tools on pair-help;

   ✅ Promote and facilitate the integration of peer helpers into support structures and teams, with a focus on the employment of peer workers;

   ✅ Securing conditions for peer workers.

Peer support is therefore deployed in various fields of action in the medico-social world: disability, prostitution prevention, harm reduction, mental health, the reception, accommodation and integration sector.

To go further​

  • La pair-aidance Gesmond Thomas, Cinget Anne, Estecahandy Pascale Paris : Ministère du logement et de l’habitat durable, DIHAL , 2016, 6 p. Online :
  • The emergence in France of peer movements Gardien Eve. Journal des anthropologues 2010; 122-123: 87-114 Online:
  • Five-year plan for housing first and the fight against homelessness, 2018-2022, Ministry of Territorial Cohesion – Plan 2018-2022
  • Le Cardinal, Patrick, et al. Recovery-oriented practices and peer support: history, studies and perspectives”, Psychiatric Information, vol. 89, no. 5, 2013, pp. 365-370.
  • Farkas, Marianne. “The emergence of recovery in the United States: from struggling with illness to ‘living well'”, Social Life, vol. 23-24, no. 3-4, 2018, pp. 53-74.