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Peer support in mental health care: is it good value for money?

Peer support workers - people with their own lived experience of mental illness - provide mutually supportive relationships in secondary mental health services. Increasing numbers are being employed, both in this country and elsewhere. But good quality evidence on the effectiveness of this form of service delivery is in short supply and even less is known about its cost-effectiveness.

This paper makes a first attempt at assessing whether peer support provides value for money, looking specifically at whether peer support workers can reduce psychiatric inpatient bed use, either by preventing admissions or by shortening lengths of stay. Because of the very high cost of inpatient care, the savings that result from even small changes in bed use may be sufficient to outweigh the costs of employing peer workers.

We identified six studies in the research literature which give some evidence on the relationship between peer support and inpatient bed use. Re-analysis and aggregation of the data in these studies support a positive conclusion: the financial benefits of employing peer support workers do indeed exceed the costs, in some cases by a substantial margin. It must be emphasised that the evidence for this finding is very limited in both quantity and quality, but nevertheless sufficient to justify continuing interest in the employment of properly trained and supported peer workers in mental health teams, alongside more research evaluating their effects.