Peer mentoring: An effective vehicle for promoting healthy behaviors

healthy_behaviorPetosa, R.L., & Smith, L.H. (2014). Peer mentoring for health behavior change: A systematic review. American Journal of Health Education, 45, 351-357.


We know that quality youth mentoring programs have been shown to promote a myriad of positive outcome for youth.  However, little focus has been placed on the ability of youth mentoring programs to promote positive health behaviors among adolescents.  Thus, this review article focuses on the ways in which peer mentoring can be used to promote health behavior in a school-setting, while also highlighting the benefits of peer mentoring amongst adults.


The study reviewed articles between the years of 1990 and present day that met the following criteria:

–          Peer mentors were the primary form of intervention

–          The study reported on the impact evaluation of the program

–          Mentees’ health behavior changes were evaluated

o   Health behaviors included: physical activity, diet practices, substance use prevention, and smoking prevention

  • The study also examined peer mentoring with adults that looked at increasing: condom use, breastfeeding, cancer screenings, and smoking cessation


Adult-based peer mentoring:

–          Effective in increasing health screenings and breast feeding among low SES women

–          Peer mentoring was shown to help build trust, change norms, and use social support to overcome the emotional and situational barriers to health screenings

–          Higher rates of smoking cessation among adult-based mentors than in traditional group cessation methods

–          Increased physical activity

–          These adult-based peer mentoring interventions were a cost-effective way to reach diverse, hard to reach populations

–          Adults mentoring adolescents decreased teen drug use in middle school students

Peer mentoring for adolescents:

–          “Adolescents tend to view their peers as more credible and having a better understanding of the concerns of young people”

–          Decrease in problem behaviors (gang membership, hurting others in physical fights, risk taking)

–          Peer mentored groups showed decreases in smoking

–          Lower rates of drug use

–          Trained peer mentors felt more comfortable seeking adult support for suicide risk

–          Increases in female’s total physical activity


This literature review demonstrates that the use of peer mentoring is an effective approach for promoting health behaviors, among both adults and adolescents. These findings also show how peer mentoring is an effective intervention for hard to reach and marginalized populations. Social cognitive theory supports these findings in suggesting that peers have the ability to strongly influence each other because people are more likely to imitate the behavior to those they see as similar to themselves.


More specifically, these results have implications for health practice education in schools. Results of the study suggest that teens wanting to serve as school-based peer mentors should be high school upperclassmen who are recommended by school staff and then receive ongoing training and debriefing to facilitate program delivery. In addition, findings suggest that peer mentoring is best implemented in schools that want to improve the overall well-being of students, not just target at-risk behaviors. The past studies suggest that mentor training should generally include:

1)      An overview of the mentoring process

2)      Skill building for handling unexpected events, building rapport, perspective taking,, and effective listening

3)      Ongoing support, debriefing, guidance, and structure for scheduled activities

4)      Offering positive reinforcement, solution focused heling and constructive criticism

5)      Planning for program termination. Rules for contact outside of the program

Overall, as the authors conclude, “schools should consider teens as a powerful force to promote health behaviors.”