The Incredible Power of Peer Support

If you’re at all familiar with issues surrounding mental health and/or addiction, you’ve probably heard of the idea of peer support. But what is peer support and how do you become a peer supporter? Let’s cover these and a few other important points about this very effective and helpful approach.

What are the origins of peer support?

The idea of people helping others with similar needs goes way back in history. In the modern era, peer support has often referred to people “in recovery” from mental illness or addiction providing support and assistance to others also working towards overcoming these types of challenges.

A well-known example dating back many decades is the “12-step” model established by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other similar support groups. In these groups, individuals assisted others on a peer-to-peer level, meaning they were not professionals and typically had no formal training in providing health care services.

How is peer support viewed today?

While the above example still applies, a more refined definition and focus for peer support has emerged in recent years. This newer definition, according to the International Association of Peer Supporters (INAPS) is: “Peer support providers are people with a personal experience of recovery from mental health, substance use, or trauma conditions who receive specialized training and supervision to guide and support others who are experiencing similar mental health, substance use or trauma issues toward increased wellness.”

The INAPS definition goes on to say that “the term peer supporter is an umbrella for many different peer support titles and roles, such as peer advocate, peer counselor, peer coach, peer mentor, peer educator, peer support group leader, peer wellness coach, recovery coach, recovery support specialist, and many more.”

Peer supporters provide services in both one-on-one and small group formats. They can assist individuals with a host of recovery-based topics, such as coping skills, developing personal recovery plans, crisis and relapse prevention, illness management and healthy lifestyle behaviors.

How do you become a peer supporter?

As of 2012, 36 US states had established a formal process to become a certified “peer specialist” (or similar title) by completing a specified training course, which includes a competency test. Some states don’t formally certify peer supporters, but many agencies require peer support providers to complete training that is related to their specific organization.

What are the core values of peer support?

INAPS developed “National Practice Guidelines for Peer Supporters” which outlined the following 12 core ethical values for the practice of peer support:

  1. Peer support is voluntary
  2. Peer supporters are hopeful
  3. Peer supports are open minded
  4. Peer supporters are empathetic
  5. Peer supports are respectful
  6. Peer supporters facilitate change
  7. Peer supporters are honest and direct
  8. Peer support is mutual and reciprocal
  9. Peer support is equally shared power
  10. Peer support is strengths-focused
  11. Peer support is transparent
  12. Peer support is person-driven

Where do peer supporters work?

Peer supporters can work in a variety of mental health and addiction-focused settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, peer-operated centers, community outreach teams, courts, correctional facilities, and veterans’ centers, just to name a few. Some peer supporters are paid while others may work on a volunteer basis. 

What are the benefits of peer support interventions?

From my work over the past several years with peer supporters, which was primarily in a psychiatric hospital setting, I have seen many individuals benefit greatly from working with trained peer specialists. One of my colleagues who has also worked extensively with peer supporters says their interventions are “magical.” He recounts several instances of people with serious mental illnesses growing and flourishing with remarkable progress after only a relatively short period of contact with peer supporters.

One of the very tangible benefits that peer supporters bring is their first-hand, lived experience with mental health issues. Because of this, they can easily relate to individuals who are still struggling with their own personal challenges. They can also share the tips, tools, and strategies which have been useful for them, which may also be worthwhile for the person they are helping.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts peer supporters bring to others is hope and inspiration, for they are a living role model of how it’s possible to grow, learn and have a fulfilling life while still coping with a significant and sometimes lifelong health challenge.

A growing body of research is showing numerous benefits from peer-based interventions. Some of these established benefits include:

  • Improved outreach to persons with serious mental illness
  • Decreased hospital admissions and fewer crisis events
  • Shortened hospital stays
  • Improved social functioning and improvement in symptoms
  • Improved ability to cope with or accept illness
  • Improved family relationships
  • Improved quality of life
  • Increased employment
  • Significant healthcare cost savings

Where can I learn more about peer support?

The INAPS website is a great place to start. While you’re there, be sure to check out some of their many useful resources, such as their practice guidelines and their “Recovery to Practice” materials.

Even better, talk with your local mental health organizations and agencies and get information to connect personally with one or more peer supporters. Not only can this help you with your own personal recovery journey, you may eventually decide to obtain the training to become a credentialed peer supporter yourself and help others.

I hope you can tell what a huge fan of peer supporters I am. Their work has been one of the most significant revolutions in mental health care over the past several years, and it’s definitely worth your time to connect with these fantastic individuals who give so much of their time and talents to help others.

Here’s a question: Could you or someone you care about benefit from working with a peer supporter? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

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