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Using a peer research approach to evaluate women-led peer support

Tanya MacKay

The evaluation of Women Side by Side, a women-led peer support programme run by Mind (the mental health charity) and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, was undertaken using a peer research methodology. This meant that the evaluation was carried out with people who had similar lived experiences of ‘multiple disadvantage’ and/or mental health issues to the women giving and receiving peer support within the projects. The team also had experiential understanding of the recognised structural and social challenges experienced by women, based solely on their gender.

Utilising a peer research methodology challenges traditional academic structures of research, by valuing and shifting power to those with lived experience. It fosters authentic and mutual participation for both researcher and those participating in research, and in doing so, attempts to address traditional tokenistic approaches to engaging those with experiential expertise. Peer research helps to reduce the barriers between researcher and ‘participant’, enabling the researcher to disclose their own experience where they feel it is appropriate, and if they feel comfortable to do so. This shifts roles from expert and person being researched, to peers with shared understanding.

Shared experience

I believe peer research empowers and connects people. It allows us to develop a sense of shared purpose to inform change and improve both policy and programmes. It enriches research with unique insight and reflection. However, I also think it is important to recognise that what makes someone a peer varies: it can range from a specific shared experience to experiences as broad as culture, gender, or geographical location. Furthermore, it is for those giving and receiving peer support, or in the case of peer research, those sharing and exploring information, to decide who a peer is and in what context.

Using a peer methodology, in which the team drew on their own experiences, had significant impact on all stages of the evaluation of the Women Side by Side programme. It helped us to create tailored impact measurement tools and adjust standardised measures, to try and avoid re-traumatising the women completing them. The advisory group of women, with varying lived experiences, also played an important and active role in shaping the evaluation design, by sharing their expertise and insight into how best to connect with women who experience or have experienced multiple disadvantage.

Drawing on our peerness allowed us to develop rapport and connect with groups, facilitating honest and open observations based on mutual trust and respect. These observations were less observer and observed, and rather a group of women sharing their learning and experience. A group of women giving and receiving peer support. People living through and with trauma and multiple disadvantages, including poor mental health. The team undertook activities with groups such as craft, photography, singing or gardening, and these activities acted as facilitators to conversation and learning about peer support in a women specific environment.

Experiences as women

The evaluation team also drew upon their own experiences as women, of working in the field of mental health, when undertaking interviews. This experiential expertise helped shape interview schedules and the team thought carefully about location, time, and ensuring the confidentiality of the women who spoke with us. This allowed us to undertake interviews in a way that supported women to share their story and experiences openly and honestly. In addition, the team drew on their knowledge to recognise when women felt uncomfortable with topics, which facilitated a shift in the interview focus, so that women could be connected to support where needed or asked about. The team’s sense of peerness was also a vital aspect of how we coded, analysed and wrote the evaluation report. Indeed, it was our experiences as peers that helped us re-examine the original peer support values, identified in the Side by Side evaluation, in the context of women’s peer support.

Our methodology also allowed for the team as peer researchers to develop new skills and confidence, both professionally and personally, again highlighting that a sense of mutuality is embedded within the approach. Not only did the women within the peer support groups and team learn from each other, there was also unique learning and growth that occurred within the team through the sharing of experiences. Our peerness allowed us to more civically explore our own experiences as women, as givers and receivers of peer support, and reflect on how these informed our analysis of the data.

Emotional labour

It is important to recognise that using this peer approach not easy to carry out. Emotionally it was difficult using our personal experiences and listening to other women’s difficult experiences. Because of this, it was and is important to ensure opportunities for reflection for peer researchers, and adequate support from project leads and organisations, to ensure emotional wellbeing and safety.

The peer research approach requires more time, involves more emotional labour from the researchers and is often more complex than traditional academic approaches. However, the peer team provided an insight and richness to this data that would not have been possible without drawing on their lived experience. This is important in helping us generate relevant, authentic research with meaningful impact for those with experience of mental health issues. Furthermore, the peer research approach enabled connection with the projects, and the women within the groups, allowing us to truly hear the stories of the programme and women’s experiences of women-led peer support. Thus, peer research methodology is not only important in improving research broadly, but especially so in the context of learning from women’s experiences of multiple disadvantage, including mental health difficulties, who may have felt silenced or unheard by historically patriarchal systems of  support.


This is the final blog in our series this month looking at the value of collaborative working and peer research in the evaluation of the women-led peer support programme, Women Side by Side.

Tanya MacKay is the Project Lead for the evaluation of Women Side By Side at the McPin Foundation.

The evaluators of Women Side by Side were a group of peer researchers at the McPin Foundation. The team was brought together specifically for this project along with five regional peer researchers recruited to work alongside the commissioned programme hubs in England and Wales. This meant that the evaluation was carried out by people who had similar lived experience to the women the projects were supporting, and experiential understanding of the structural and social challenges experienced by women, as a result of their gender. These experiences provide a level of insight that may not have been possible with researchers without lived experience.

Our report from Women Side by Side will be launched soon. For more information please visit this page.  

Other blogs in this series:

Women Side by Side shows what can happen if women are given the space to grow

Overcoming imposter syndrome as a peer researcher

Women Side by Side has helped raise awareness of mental health in a BAME community