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Could training young people in peer support empower them during Covid-19?

© Ellie Zahedi @elaillu (the author and illustrator are not the same person)

Ellie, a member of McPin Foundation’s Young People’s Network

What is the Covid-19 Peer Support Project and why did you want to get involved?

The project aims to help young people during the pandemic by giving them skills to support themselves and their peers through such a stressful period.

Before this project, I was vaguely aware of the benefits of peer support, although I had only ever considered the effect on the person receiving the support. Often, the first people we go to with a problem are friends, siblings or significant others over parents or teachers. Personally I feel other young people can relate more, having been through similar experiences with exams, family conflict and stress about the future.

But sometimes, it is hard to know what to say, isn’t it? How far is too far? Where does the line fall between looking after someone else and neglecting yourself in the process? The balance can feel difficult, and that was what this study aimed to address.

How is it different to other peer support research you have seen?

The project is unique because the researchers from the University of Oxford and Imperial College wanted to find out what effect peer support training had on the person being trained. Would being trained to give support to others also have a positive impact on their wellbeing? In most research into peer support, outcomes are measured for the people who are being supported. The idea for the Covid-19 Peer Support Project came from a preliminary survey which showed that young people felt they would like to provide support to their peers but felt they lacked the skills to do so.

//The project results are currently being written up. Check back here for further updates//

What do you think about peer support as a potential way to improve the wellbeing of young people?

I think peer support is an incredibly valuable tool in the prevention and treatment of mental health issues and is under researched. Especially during the pandemic, a time of unprecedented uncertainty, being trained in peer support could provide young people with a sense of agency and accomplishment. This could have huge benefits not only for them but also their families and communities, by increasing social connectedness while remaining physically distanced.

How did young people shape the research?

The research was informed by a Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG). The YPAG was made up of two people from the McPin Young People’s Network, two from the Oxford NeurOx YPAG, and two from the Lancet Young Leaders Group, with a range of ages and backgrounds. This allowed the YPAG to feed in a wide range of views and experiences of the effects of Covid-19 on young people.

What aspects were you involved in?

We helped design the peer support training and gave input on how the research should be conducted. In the early meetings, we discussed the study design, outcome measures and ethics application. We gave our views on the biggest challenges facing us during the pandemic and how these could be addressed by the project. We identified education, social isolation and conflicts with household members as particularly prevalent issues.

Some of the research topics we advised on included ensuring the scales on the questionnaire made sense and were worded appropriately, and rewording the qualitative questions so they were suitable for young people. Towards the end of the project, the YPAG was involved in the data analysis. To provide a range of detailed outcomes, this study used a mixed methods approach – using both quantitative and qualitative data to understand the response to the peer support training. The YPAG helped to analyse the qualitative data, identifying codes within the questionnaire responses and sorting these into themes. Having people with lived experience involved in qualitative analysis like this has been shown to lead to greater understanding of research findings.

And what about the training itself?

An organisation based in America, called YouthEra, delivered the peer support training. They attended some of our Zoom meetings so we could talk to them about how the training should be delivered. We advised on what times it should run and how many breaks to fit in with school schedules etc. We were also involved in recruitment of participants, suggesting what methods would be most effective (we decided social media would be useful for this) and using our own Instagram and Twitter platforms to encourage our peers to be involved.

Self-care was a key theme in discussions and that seems to be reflected in the results. Why do you think that is?

Yes. With YouthEra, we talked about the importance of including self-care, such as positive self-talk, in the peer support training. So it was great to see that self-care was a prevalent topic in the qualitative data we collected, often in relation to how the training might help people in the future. This is important because to support their peers, young people must first ensure that they look after themselves. As the old expression says, ‘you can’t pour from an empty glass’.

It is increasingly common to see young people neglect themselves (mentally and physically) to prioritise caring for everyone else. I’m sure you can think of some examples. Staying up late to phone a friend going through a hard time but then not getting enough sleep yourself. Taking on the majority of the work in a class project because you know your classmate has been struggling recently, but then getting behind on your other work and making yourself stressed. Or even just talking to a friend about their problems while you’re having a bad day and putting all your emotional energy into them rather than yourself.

This can contribute to making young people feel they ‘lack the skills’ to provide peer support. Being taught how to care for themselves as well as their peers allows people to feel they can provide effective support for others while still prioritising their own mental health.


Ellie is a member of McPin’s Young People’s Network and a Psychology student. She has a particular interest in childhood and adolescent mental health. She was a member of the Young People’s Advisory Group on this project.

The project was funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund and ESRC Impact Acceleration Account through the University of Oxford’s COVID-19: Economic, Social, Cultural, & Environmental Impacts – Urgent Response Fund. The results are currently being written up. Check back here for further updates.