OBJECTIVE: This review assessed the level of evidence and effectiveness of peer support services delivered by individuals in recovery to those with serious mental illnesses or co-occurring mental and substance use disorders. METHODS: Authors searched PubMed, PsycINFO, Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts, Social Services Abstracts, Published International Literature on Traumatic Stress, the Educational Resources Information Center, and the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature for outcome studies of peer support services from 1995 through 2012. They found 20 studies across three service types: peers added to traditional services, peers in existing clinical roles, and peers delivering structured curricula. Authors judged the methodological quality of the studies using three levels of evidence (high, moderate, and low). They also described the evidence of service effectiveness. RESULTS: The level of evidence for each type of peer support service was moderate. Many studies had methodological shortcomings, and outcome measures varied. The effectiveness varied by service type. Across the range of methodological rigor, a majority of studies of two service types—peers added and peers delivering curricula—showed some improvement favoring peers. Compared with professional staff, peers were better able to reduce inpatient use and improve a range of recovery outcomes, although one study found a negative impact. Effectiveness of peers in existing clinical roles was mixed. CONCLUSIONS: Peer support services have demonstrated many notable outcomes. However, studies that better differentiate the contributions of the peer role and are conducted with greater specificity, consistency, and rigor would strengthen the evidence.

This report is part of the RAND external publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.