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.
Call to Action
- MHA affiliates, service provider organizations, and other advocates should advocate for and make peer support an integral part of mental health and substance abuse service delivery.
- To successfully recruit and retain excellent peer counselors, people with extensive experience in peer counseling should be involved at multiple levels of planning and implementation of peer support services, including senior management positions in service programs.
- Affiliates should review state statutes governing the practice of mental health professions to remove barriers that artificially restrict the scope of activities of peer support specialists.
- Federal funding for the increased use of peer support services and peer support training should be a priority area for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
- States should set aside an appropriate percentage of state funds for peer support programs.
- Parent and partner and adolescent peer services should be developed to complement adult peer services.
- Federal providers of mental health services, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, should support training and employment of peer support specialists.
- Federal, state, and local governments should assure that trained peer advocates are included among the groups of people permitted to provide crisis counseling in emergency preparedness and response plans.
- Academic institutions and federal entities, such as the National Institute of Mental Health, should support research on the efficacy of peer support programs and different structural and training considerations that promote greater efficacy.
- Since peer support services are often located in small and frequently consumer-run agencies, MHA encourages Medicaid and other authorities to minimize the reporting burden while maintaining accountability in order to facilitate service provision and entry of peers into the services environment.
- Certification of peer support specialists can be helpful in promoting professionalism and getting reimbursement, but lack of certification should not be a bar to service.
- MHA also supports the evolving role of peers trained for whole health recovery to reduce the 25-year average premature death of those served by public health services.
National Certified Peer Specialist Credential
Mental Health America developed a national, accredited certification for peer support. Learn more here.
Center for Peer Support
MHA's new Center for Peer Support has the latest information and materials on peer support, peer specialist certification, peer-run programs, support groups, and current research on the efficacy of peer support.