Evaluating the Side by Side peer support programme

Over the last 2 years the McPin foundation has been working with St Georges University of London and the London School of Economics to evaluate the Side by Side programme of peer support. Funded by the Big Lottery and delivered by a collaboration between Mind, Bipolar UK and a number of smaller organisations, it aimed to make peer support available to people across nine regions in England. Mind’s aims for the programme were:

  • build an evidence base for the effectiveness of one to one, group and online peer support
  • promote the value of peer support to people with experience of mental health problems, service providers and commissioners
  • improve the lives of people experiencing mental health problems across England through access to peer support.


We had aims as well. We wanted to:

  • use the programme to build a team of people delivering what we term peer research, employing people with experience of mental health difficulties as researchers on the project
  • learn with others how to deliver high quality co-produced research appropriate for evaluating peer support.


A reflection on how expertise from experience was used in the programme has been written by the team.

The McPin Foundation led the qualitative component of the evaluation. We interviewed a range of stakeholders including:

  • people new to peer support
  • people who had been involved in peer support for some time
  • people involved in organising and delivering the Side by Side programme
  • commissioners interested in funding peer support


Unsurprisingly, we found that peer support is done in many different ways. You can read what we found in detail here.

We were asked to identify the key principles of peer support. The varied contexts that the groups worked in across the nine regions meant that we had a very rich set of information and experience to work with, but this came with the challenge of ensuring we reflected the diversity we found. We achieved this through carrying out a lot of interviews – about 70 in total. From those we identified six core, interrelated values that are essential in creating a nurturing peer support environment. These values are:


1. Experience in common

2. Safety

3. Choice and Control

4. Two-way interactions

5. Human connection

6. Freedom to be oneself


The way these core values may be expressed in a particular group or place will, however, differ. It depends on a series of decisions that people organising a project may make when thinking about how they want to do their peer support. We found these decisions are:


1. Facilitation – does the particular form of peer support need an official facilitator, who could play this role and what kind of training and support might they need?

2. Type of leadership – how should this peer support be led, through collective leadership by many or all members, by individual peers taking up paid or unpaid leadership positions, or by a larger organisation via a paid co-ordinator.

3. Focus of peer support sessions – all peer support will involve peers talking with, listening to and supporting each other. There are also a wide range of other activities that peers could do together including gardening, walking, arts activities, while doing this.

4. Membership Type – whether to limit membership of a particular form of peer support to people with a specific diagnosis or background, or keep it open to a wider community.

5. Organisational support – some forms of peer support, or the people leading them, will be run through or supported by larger, possibly national, organisations or networks while others may be based in a specific place and involve a small number of people.


What is effective within a particular peer support setting, and which sort of peer support will suit particular individuals will depend on their needs and preferences. We are keen to hear from people interested in these findings. Do they resonate with your own experiences of giving and receiving peer support? The full evaluation report will be published in the autumn containing outcomes data, economic analysis, commissioner perspectives and a capacity building framework. We will let you know when it’s available!