Peer Support Across the Continuum of Youth Mental Health Services


Youth peer support is a critical new service with limited but promising evidence for supporting diverse young people with mental health concerns and problematic substance use. Approaches to youth peer support are varied and the mechanisms by which they produce improved outcomes are not consistently understood. A team of researchers from PolicyWise for Children & Families and the Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary will share findings of a current Frame-funded research project about youth peer support for mental health – specifically, ‘what works’, for whom, and under what circumstances. This work triangulates perspectives of youth with lived experience who receive and provide peer support, organizational leaders, and academics. We will share what we’ve learned about: the youth peer support landscape; challenges, facilitators, and barriers to service delivery; and practical implications for implementing and improving peer support services across integrated and non-integrated youth settings.


Gina Dimitropoulos
Dr. Dimitropoulos is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, cross-appointed with the Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics. She is also a Full Member of the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, and the O'Brien Institute for Public Health. She is an award-winning clinician, researcher, and mentor who has dedicated her career to bridging research and practice on youth mental health.  

Naomi Parker
Naomi is the Senior Operating Officer at PolicyWise. Naomi has over 15 years’ experience working in the field of addiction and mental health. This work has ranged across the continuum from front line practice to prevention, policy and research. More recently Naomi has worked extensively with diverse, multi-sectoral stakeholders to generate evidence for child, family and community well-being. Naomi is committed to mobilizing knowledge in order to promote evidence-informed policy and practice. Naomi oversees a team who apply a structured project management approach to research, evaluation and data analytic projects to ensure quality results are delivered. Naomi has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, a Masters of Business Administration and is currently completing her Doctorate of Business Administration. When not working, Naomi and her family can be found out enjoying the mountains. 

Val Salt
Val Salt is a Senior Research & Policy Associate at PolicyWise for Children & Families. Val has a Master of Arts in Sociology from the University of Calgary and over 10 years’ experience in the non-profit sector in positions ranging from frontline to program coordination and evaluation. Val’s research over the past five years has centered around the development, implementation, and evaluation of integrated youth mental health services in Alberta. Outside of work, Val can be found curled up with a good book or spending time outdoors.

Nadine Taylor
Nadine Taylor is a Research & Policy Associate at PolicyWise for Children & Families. She has a Master of Public Health with a specialization in Health Promotion from the University of Alberta. Over the past few years, Nadine has worked on several research and evaluation projects related to child, youth, and family mental health and wellbeing including youth peer support for mental health, trauma-informed approaches in youth justice settings, and community-led mental health promotion in rural and remote areas. 

Rosemary Perry
Rosemary Perry is a Research Coordinator at the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her current role and responsibilities include the coordination of several research projects related to child and adolescent mental health, emerging adults, and youth peer support. 

Manya Singh
Manya Singh is a Research Coordinator at the Calgary Eating Disorder Program and the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She currently coordinates several projects related to child and adolescent mental health and eating disorders, peer support, and transitions in care.

Key takeaways

  • Mixed methods approach including a survey, interviews, and focus groups
    • Work with a scientific advising committee comprised of researchers and providers in integrated youth services
  • Conducted a rapid literature review that looked at peer support in integrated youth services and across the continuum of care
    • Want to understand how organizations use peer support
  • Many organizations surveyed offered peer support in english and in urban areas
  • Found that “youth” were defined as anywhere between 11 and 30
  • Peer support moved beyond just mental health care and moved towards wellness and used relevant frameworks
  • Theory of change is defined as” what happens when everything goes right”
  • Youth shared 4 key components that were important to building an emotionally safe relationship with their peer support worker:
    • Mutuality: though the relationship may not be perfectly equal, both the youth seeking support and the peer support worker share experiences and are able to mutually benefit from the relationship
    • Empathy: listening to understand the other’s feelings while recognizing and respecting that one cannot fully understand another person’s experiences
    • Authenticity: being real and genuine, sharing lived experience allow authenticity
    • Trust: sharing lived experience requires and fosters trust through respecting confidentiality, having a non-judgemental approach, showing up for youth when they are supposed to, etc
  • Can reach youth who don’t have access to the mental health system
  • Recommendations for other peer support organizations include engaging youth throughout the process and centering equity, diversity and inclusion along all aspects of peer support

Key Learning Objectives (defined by presenters)

  1. To better understand the value and benefits of youth peer support, both for recipients and providers of peer support in a variety of contexts
  2. To identify the facilitators and barriers to effective youth peer support, and to explore opportunities for improvement to current youth peer support practices
  3. To facilitate interactive discussions with attendees, including:
    1. How can we improve awareness and understanding of youth peer support at all levels (e.g., with funders, organizational leaders, clinicians and other service providers, and youth seeking support)?
    2. How can organizations meaningfully engage youth and peer support workers in all aspects of service delivery to support EDI, collaboration with other service providers, and positive experiences and outcomes for youth?   

Key Themes

  1. Intersectional peer support
  2. Program evaluation

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