The Power of Peers: Health Benefits of Peer Education

Here’s a question: how often do you turn to siblings, roommates or friends for health-related advice or information?

If you’re like most young adults, pretty often. According to a 2010 analysis of students participating in the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), approximately 62% of college-aged students reported getting health-related information from friends.

Your peers have a big impact on the way you feel, the things you know, and what you do. And, in turn, you have a similar impact on your peers.

Peer influence affects lots of things, from academic achievement, to adopting healthy behaviors (ex: positive body image, safer sex) or unhealthy behaviors (ex: binge drinking, disordered eating), to feelings of motivation and confidence.  So, when peers are given accurate information to disseminate to others, it can have an extremely powerful effect for both the peer educators and the people receiving peer health education. Peer-led education is a way of harnessing peer influence to enact positive change, and there lots of opportunities to get involved on the UNC campus and beyond!

Peer Education?

Let’s break down peer education. First, who are your “peers”?  Essentially, those in a similar age range – like your friends, roommates, residence hall advisors, etc. Next, what does peer education entail? Peer-led education is a combination of several health education and public health models whereby peers themselves are trained* to educate their peers. The goals of peer education are to reinforce, inspire or change behaviors through workshops, advocacy projects, discussion, interactive activities, role-playing, and more.

[*Although being informed in general has the potential to have an extremely positive effect on the people around you – and something we at Campus Health absolutely endorse! — I am talking about formally trained peer health education initiatives in this post. In order to have maximum effect, peer educators should be trained in the education area of interest, in how to facilitate discussion or activities, in how and when to refer peers to other resources, and in how to inspire change.]  

Peer education has worked extremely well in many contexts. Why? Well, for starters, peers are often more approachable than other health sources, and getting information from your peers means that you’re talking to someone who probably knows what it’s like to be in your shoes.  Particularly for things that are difficult to talk about, like sexual health, peers can be an important way of disseminating information. By becoming informed on health topics, peer educators put themselves in a position where they are able to disseminate accurate, helpful information to friends, classmates, residents and others when they need it.

Let’s take a look at some of the health benefits of peer education on peers, and the health benefits for the educators themselves.

Benefits to peers

Peer education has been shown to be effective in enacting positive change in various spheres of health. In a paper by White, Park and Israel (2009), the authors found that college students in contact with a peer educator were significantly less likely to engage in dangerous alcohol consumption. The authors also found that over time, students in touch with a peer educator were less likely to engage in unhealthy weight management and “fat talk”. Another study found that peer education programs in physical activity increased physical activity among women who were physically inactive. Various sexual health-focused peer education programs have also been effective in increasing healthy behaviors such as increased condom use.

Peer education programs have even been shown to be more effective than adult-led education programs in terms of changing behaviors, attitudes and norms. However, studies on combined peer and adult-led health education programs (ex: classroom based course led by an adult or professional, with the addition of peer education on the same topics) is thought to provide maximum impact in terms of credible information dissemination, and behavior change.

Benefits to peer educators

As a peer educator, one obvious benefit is simply knowing more, and being in touch with mentors, and reliable sources of information. By itself, that’s a great thing, but it’s not the only benefit. Peer educators also advance their leadership and facilitation skills. They often positively change their own behavior as a result of participating, and gain essential skills like effective communication with others. In one study of 65 peer educators by Sawyer and colleagues, nearly half (48%) of peer educators reported increased self-esteem, and over 20% reported being more open to students’ behaviors and opinions. Additionally, 43% adopted safer sex behaviors, 20% had changed their career direction, and most found it an extremely valuable activity.

Getting Involved

Interested in getting involved with peer education here on UNC campus?

  • Consider joining a peer-based group, attending peer-led events, or reaching out to them to plan an event! At Campus Health, we’ve got several peer programs geared to different topic areas:
    • Active Minds – focus on mental health, coping skills, personal growth
    • CHISEL – promote healthy lifestyles through various health-related events on campus.
    • Diversity and Inclusiveness in College Enviroments (DICE) – a student-led program with the goal of creating greater diversity awareness and programming inclusiveness for students at UNC.
    • Interactive Theatre Carolina – uses scripted and improvisational theatre as a platform to promote health, wellness and social justice. You can request a scene, be trained They have various scenes performed throughout the year.
    • OneACT – a program for preventing interpersonal violence; you can become a peer educator, or serve on a committee.
    • Peer Health Advocates – trained to have conversations within groups of friends on health topics.
    • Student Advocates for Sexual Health (SASH)– promotes healthy sexuality; SASH members are trained in facilitating discussions, and are dedicated to making Carolina a safer and sexier place.
  • If you’re a resident hall advisor or community director, Campus Health Services has a Health Programming Guide with a variety of programs, facilitation guides and bulletin boards to get you started in your own peer-led workshops. Topics include: alcohol and other drugs, cultural competency, finances, fitness, LGBTQ topics, nutrition, sexual health, stress and more. If you need help or guidance on a topic area, seek out our help at Campus Health!