Peer Support Specialist
What's a Peer Specialist?

A Peer Specialist is an individual with lived recovery experience who has been trained and certified to help their peers gain hope and move forward in their own recovery.

The Peer Specialist:

  • Cultivates their peers’ ability to make informed, independent choices
  • Helps their peers identify and build on their strengths
  • Assists their peers in gaining information and support from the community to make their goals a reality
  • As a person who has traveled a similar path, Peer Specialists foster hope for recovery and role models that reality to the peers they serve.

Peer Specialists go by different names in different settings—for example, peer support specialists, certified recovery support specialists, and in the Department of Veterans Affairs, peer support technicians—but they have a common commitment to assisting their peers from a strengths-focused perspective. Utilizing peers with shared experiences to deliver services is empowering, and research demonstrates its effectiveness.

What do Peer Specialists do?

Peer Specialists support their peers both individually and in small groups.

Peer Specialists:

  • Help peers create individual service plans based on recovery goals and steps to achieve those goals
  • Use recovery-oriented tools to help their peers address challenges
  • Assist others to build their own self-directed wellness plans
  • Support peers in their decision-making
  • Set up and sustain peer self-help and educational groups
  • Offer a sounding board and a shoulder to lean on…and more!

Where do Peer Specialists work?

The rapidly-growing peer workforce is an integral part of treatment teams in both public and private settings including inpatient care, community-based services, consumer-run respite services, and in a wide variety of roles.

Most frequently, Peer Specialists work as paid employees, while others choose to offer their services as volunteers.

What are the qualifications to become a Peer Specialist?

Peer specialist training and certification requirements are determined on a state-by-state basis. A number of states administer their own peer specialist training and certification systems, while others contract with outside organizations to offer this training and certification. Other states permit individuals to complete state-approved training and certification programs offered by outside entities.

The Department of Veterans Affairs requires employed peer support technicians to complete either their state mental health department’s approved training and certification process, or to be trained and certified by organizations whose training has been determined by the VA to equip peer specialists with necessary skills and competencies.
Peers: Their Roles and the Research

Peer support programs provide an opportunity for consumers who have achieved significant recovery to assist others in their recovery journeys. Peer specialists model recovery, teach skills and offer supports to help people experiencing mental health challenges lead meaningful lives in the community. Peer specialists promote recovery; enhance hope and social networking through role modeling and activation; and supplement existing treatment with education, empowerment, and aid in system navigation1.

Peer supporters are people who use their experience of recovery from mental health disorders to support others in recovery. Combined with skills often learned in formal training, their experience and institutional knowledge put them in a unique position to offer support.  Although they go by many names like peer support specialist or recovery coach, all model recovery, share their knowledge, and relate in a way that have made this evidence-based practice a rapidly growing field.

In all areas of life—no matter your background—we know relationships are crucial to well-being. We call friends in hard times, visit family members when they aren’t feeling well, and often see support groups for individuals who’ve experienced similar challenges like chronic disease or loss of a loved one. In the same way that we reach out to someone who we think will understand, peer specialists can provide that understanding during a time when many feel alienated and hopeless. They provide an important connection and hope that recovery is possible.

But peer supporters are more than just people who have been there. Seen in a variety of settings including hospitals, drop-in centers, and prisons, peer support specialists go beyond treatment as usual and use different training and skills to support recovery in conjunction with professionals like therapists, social workers, and psychiatrists. They work in a variety of roles including case management, wellness coaching, education, and as active participants in a full range of clinical settings, including crisis services.

Available in all 50 states and Medicaid reimbursable in 35, peer support is considered a best practice by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Established in the public mental health system and moving into the private sector, the research shows that peers improve outcomes. Peer support services have been shown to:

  • Reduce symptoms and hospitalizations
  • Increase social support and participation in the community
  • Decrease lengths of hospital stays and costs of services
  • Improve well-being, self-esteem, and social functioning
  • Encourage more thorough and longer-lasting recoveries

Regardless of the setting or role, we know that peer supporters actively involved in a person’s recovery can make all the difference.