A Mental Health Peer Support Specialist assists a peer (someone with mental health issues) in all the domains that help that person to connect to a full and complete life. They inspire hope, encourage taking personal responsibility and courageous steps. They talk to them about getting their power back and exploring their hopes and dreams on their individual pathway to recovery. The mutuality of their lived experience helps to produce trust. Both the peer support specialist and the peer do amazing work through their relationship.
Given their success, it is expected that the peer support workforce could make up 20% of the entire mental health and addictions workforce in 10 years. As of 2012, 36 states in the USA provide training for Peer Support Specialists.
Peer Specialist Training
The peer support specialist, works with the same person as the psychiatrist does.
In most cases, the psychiatrist works to have the patient achieve compliance. The psychiatrist is required to complete about 9 years of post-high school education and all the requirements of an MD.
The peer support specialist is certified after 40-80 hours of peer support training and a final test.
Valuing Peer Support
We have come a long way in respecting peer support specialists since there were first certified in the 1980s. Just as in the case with other discrimination, we still have work to do.
It’s possible that stigma, stereotyping and/or discrimination affect some decisions concerning pay rates for peer specialists. Evidence for this can be heard: “Well, that person was in and out of the hospital for years” or “That person was smoking crack on the streets just three years ago.” “They only took a brief training and they need to keep their place.” “The patients are taking over the asylum.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data specifically on Peer Support Specialists. Instead, it counts them among “Community Health Workers”, of which 51,900 were employed in May 2016. The median annual wage for these workers was $37,330 in May 2016, about the same as the median annual wage of $37,040 for all workers. (US Department of Labor)
The International Association of Peer Supporters, iNAPS, has recently formed a work group with a number of other collaborators, including Patrick Hendry of MHA who has worked on this for two years, who are looking at the process for adding an agreed upon description of Peer Support Specialist to the Dept. of Labor, Standard Occupational Classification. This will follow-up on the success of a group that was led by Dan O’Brian-Mazza, the National Director of Peer Support for the VA and Steve Harrington, founder of iNAPS who added peer support as a category to the National Uniform Coding Committee. This initiative can lend credibility to the profession of Peer Support Specialists.
There are major differences between Community Health Worker in the United States and Peer Support Specialists. When Peer Support Specialists are able to achieve a distinct federal classification, it will 1) give more credibility to the profession and 2) provide regular statistics on the amount of peer support specialists in each state/territory and 3) also give important information, e.g. about salaries. In every state and country, we can partner with organizations that hire peer support to work with legislatures to affect change to improve the working conditions of peer support specialists.
What else is needed?
I know that as we discuss this, peer support specialists will continue to do outstanding work and remain hopeful for the people they work with just as we will remain hopeful about the future of peer support.
With high percentages of peer support trained specialists not working in some states, we want to enable peer support specialists to remain in the work that they love—and the work that is so helpful in encouraging full, healthy lives in their peers.
This blog was adapted from a longer article, “What is the Value of Peer Support” by Mike Weaver, Executive Director at The International Association of Peer Supporters. https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-weaver-a17434a/