What Are Peer Support Specialists?

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Peer support specialists are people with lived experience who have been through situations similar to those they support. They have been successful in recovery and have firsthand knowledge of the healing process. They can provide aid in addiction, mental health conditions, medical conditions, and disabilities.

While a peer support specialist does not substitute or replace treatment with a healthcare provider when it is needed, they can provide a unique layer of support.

Read on to learn more about peer support specialists, who they help, and the benefits and challenges associated with peer work.

Supportive women hug while attending a group therapy session

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What Do Peer Support Specialists Do?

Recovery is a process that may include many types of support, including clinical treatment with a healthcare provider, social support, medication, peer support and self-help groups, and faith-based strategies.

Peer support specialists help with this process and provide other services, including reducing stigma, improving a person’s quality of life in recovery, and reducing the need for certain health services. For example, research shows that this layer of support can lower emergency room visits, reduce treatment readmission rates, and decrease hospital visits in people in recovery.

The role or work of a peer support specialist may include: 

  • Cultivating relationships built on trust, respect, empathy, mutual experience, and choice
  • Offering support through validation, encouragement, empowerment, and highlighting strengths 
  • Sharing their personal experience (when appropriate) to inspire hope
  • Recognizing a person's personal beliefs, cultural values, previous experiences, and individual needs
  • Providing education about recovery, advocating for oneself, and how to navigate treatment or the healthcare system
  • Educating the public or lawmakers
  • Assisting during crises by discussing warning signs, healthy coping, and sharing resources
  • Overseeing the work of other peer support specialists

Peer support services are often successful in addition to other professional mental health or medical services.

Peer Support Settings

Peer support specialists work with people in various settings, including individually, in groups, face-to-face, through text or over the phone, and online.

Competencies of Peer Work

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) identifies certain core competencies related to providing peer support. These skills serve as a guide to people providing peer support services to others.

The five competencies exist to ensure peer support work is:

  • Recovery-oriented and empowers people to choose recovery and find meaning and purpose throughout the process
  • Person-centered by celebrating a person's strengths and focusing on individual needs and goals
  • Voluntary and prioritizes autonomy, choice, and collaboration, allowing a person to play an important role in their recovery
  • Relationship-focused by creating a foundation established on respect, trust, mutuality, and lived experience
  • Trauma-informed through emphasizing physical, emotional, and psychological safety

Who Do Peer Support Specialists Help?

Peer work is becoming a more established part of mental health and substance use services. A review on peer support specialists showed that peer support could be effective with different populations and groups, including:

  • Mental health conditions
  • Addiction and substance use
  • People with mental health conditions and involvement in the criminal justice system
  • Young adults
  • People who are medically and socially marginalized 
  • People with disabilities
  • Families

Benefits and Challenges of Peer Support Work

Though peer support work has its challenges, it can be enriching. People who receive support from peer workers report feeling understood, trusted, and respected.

Receiving peer support can also lead to better communication and relationships with healthcare providers, increased participation and consistency in treatment, and reduced need to utilize more intensive services.

Challenges identified by peer support workers include:

  • Moving from being a patient to a supportive role 
  • Unclear work roles and boundaries
  • Lack of skills and training
  • Emotional stress due to being in a helping role
  • Low compensation
  • Difficulty managing their own mental and physical health
  • Discrimination and prejudice from non-peer workers

Many peer support specialists experience satisfaction in their work. Factors that contribute to positive feelings about the work include:

  • A clear understanding of roles and boundaries
  • Empowerment
  • Supportive organizational culture
  • Meaningful working relationships with peers

Many peer support workers feel empowered by offering these services. Research shows peer support workers experience increased self-esteem, self-awareness, personal growth, and skills development.

Additionally, there is satisfaction in knowing they are helpful to others through sharing their journey.

Becoming a Peer Support Specialist

The requirements to become a peer support specialist may vary by state. However, it typically includes learning and practicing the competencies and application of skills. There are also national certification programs. You can find more information on becoming a peer support specialist through Mental Health America

Summary

Peer support specialists are individuals with lived experience who offer help to others through empathy, respect, and empowerment. They receive training that allows them to provide assistance focused on others' recovery needs. People with mental health conditions, substance use disorder, medical conditions, disabilities, and more can benefit from the services provided by peer support workers. These services can improve quality of life, as well as reduce symptoms and the chance of relapse.

A Word From Verywell

Peer support workers can be an invaluable part of the recovery process. Using your own experience to help others on their path to healing can be gratifying and empowering work. Receiving support from others with shared experiences can remind you that you are not alone. It can also help you feel more confident and consistent as you seek to change your life.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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