Peer Support Australia has been promoting the wellbeing of children and young people across Australia since 1971, emerging from a tragic event in a Northern Beaches high school where a young student died from a drug overdose. At the time, Elizabeth Campbell was working as a health educator with the NSW Department of Health on the Northern Beaches of Sydney and identified that students knew more about their peer’s lives than the staff, but often lacked the skills to support each other.
Based on this concept, Elizabeth established the first variation of our Peer Support Program called “Fifth Form/First Form”. Thirty students were trained as peer leaders and provided the latest information surrounding drug abuse, and how to promote this information to other students throughout the school to combat the issue. In the first few years a total of 22 schools were participating in Fifth Form/ First Form and small discussion groups were also introduced into primary schools. The word and the program began to spread.
Interest was not only in Australia, but internationally as well. In 1976, the program was presented in Canada, America and the United Kingdom. In early 1980, Rotary became interested and Rotarian David Stanton was instrumental in establishing a steering committee to administer the program on a state-wide basis. David was a long serving board member and later became Chair. This Steering Committee transitioned the work that was being done by Elizabeth Campbell and her volunteers into a formal organisation known as the Peer Support Foundation.
In June 1983, The Peer Support Foundation was formed. James Dibble was the inaugural Chair and an office was established in Manly, NSW. The work of the Foundation began to spread with branches being established across the country to run the Program. Although government support was strong, funding was always adhoc, particularly in these early years. It was through the commitment of the Board, volunteers, schools and in particular Elizabeth and Don Campbell, that the vision remained alive. By the mid-eighties, thousands of teachers and hundreds of schools were participating in the Peer Support Program. The Program was being used in more countries such as New Zealand, South Africa and Singapore. In 1989, the Peer Support Foundation offices moved to Brookvale on the Northern Beaches of NSW. It wouldn’t be until April 2016 that the office would move again; this time to Macquarie Park, Sydney.
The legal trading name remains The Peer Support Foundation though now trades as Peer Support Australia to reflect the national spread of the Program. There are now teachers in schools who were once Peer Leaders as students. Thousands of schools participate each year and more than ½ million students participate annually in a Peer Support Program. The initial Peer Support Program was designed to give senior students leadership opportunities, while providing younger students a caring and friendly support network throughout the school, as is still the case today. The early work was drug education but the Foundation realised it’s more than providing information on one issue; but providing students with opportunities to develop and practise skills and strategies to improve their mental, social and emotional wellbeing. Most importantly, at its core, the Peer Support Program has always been about placing students at the centre of their learning, where they are empowered with practical skills and strategies to positively navigate life and relationships.