Put simply, a peer is a person we identify with in some capacity. This can include anything from age to gender to sexual orientation to shared language.
In behavioral health, a peer is usually used to refer to someone who shares the experience of living with a psychiatric disorder and/or addiction. In that narrow context two people living with those conditions are peers, but in reality most people are far more specific about whom they would rely on for peer support. Trust and compatibility are extremely important factors.
Peer support is the “process of giving and receiving encouragement and assistance to achieve long-term recovery.” Peer supporters “offer emotional support, share knowledge, teach skills, provide practical assistance, and connect people with resources, opportunities, communities of support, and other people” (Mead, 2003; Solomon, 2004). In behavioral health, peers offer their unique lived experience with mental health conditions to provide support focused on advocacy, education, mentoring, and motivation.
Peer providers can play many roles in support for people living with psychiatric disorders and/or in addiction recovery. They are capable of facilitating education and support groups and working as a bridge linking people to services as they transition from hospitals or jails into the community. Peers also work one-on-one as role models, mentors, coaches and advocates and support people in developing psychiatric advance directions and creating Wellness Recovery Action Plans (WRAP).
Peers go by many names and can work in many different settings. Many peers have additional training and certification that demonstrates their skills and knowledge. Combined with their lived experience and ability to engage and connect with consumers, peer supporters are a dynamic and growing group that continue to transform lives and systems.
The concept of “peer support” in mental health has its roots in the self-help movement that began in the 1970s. During a time of intense focus on civil rights and social change, people who had survived the abuses of psychiatric hospitals came together to support each other and work towards healing.
They understood there was more to recovery than “symptom management” and that individuals who had been hospitalized were capable of supporting one another and living meaningful lives in the community.
Thanks to the leadership of peers and the growing evidence around the practice over the past decades, the peer workforce has grown to over 24,000 supporters working in all 50 states and U.S. territories. Considered an evidence-based practice by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), peer support is Medicaid reimbursable in over 41 states.
From the criminal justice system to housing services to hotlines, peers model recovery and contribute to the lives of others.
MHA peers have been moving into the private sector and have the potential to be integrated into all areas of health. The private health sector offers a wide array of work opportunities for qualified peer support workers including working in private practice alongside mental health professionals, primary care, Emergency Departments, and supervision roles. As more people learn about peers and the importance of recovery-oriented systems, peers will play a central role in supporting people living with mental health conditions and helping to empower them to live meaningful lives in the community.