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A Day in the Life: Peer Support Specialist

Two people holding both hands

Peer support in addiction treatment is neither a new nor controversial concept. Indeed, it represents a proven benefit to those in recovery. Peer support specialists are those who may or may not have been affected by drug use but have the willingness and ability to offer social support for those starting their recovery. Peer support specialists may be volunteers or professionals and are often people who have had great success in recovery themselves.

The peer support specialist is not a clinical role. However, the services they offer can make the therapeutic process more successful. The peer support specialist has four main roles:

  • Emotional support – helping the recovering addict improve their confidence as they navigate their new life without drugs
  • Informational support – helping those in recovery get the information they need to return to “normal” life both personally and professionally
  • Instrumental support – helping them accomplish basic personal and professional tasks to improve their lives
  • Affiliational support – helping those in recovery learn and improve their social skills, create a support system around them, and develop a sense of community

A peer support specialist coach or mentor should not be confused with the 12-step sponsor. The two are quite different.

The peer support specialist will meet their peer at some point in the recovery process. Typically, peer support is most effective in mid to later recovery after the client has gone through some early treatment. It will be up to the support specialist to develop a mutually beneficial relationship based on trust and honest communication.

The support specialist, despite not having a clinical role, will require supervision. This is usually provided by a treatment center or licensed mental health counselor or certified addiction professional.

Peer support specialists will be expected to adhere to the same principles – legally, ethically, and professionally – as clinicians in the field. Privacy and boundaries are two of the most important concepts for anyone working with a person in recovery. However, the responsibilities of the peer support specialist extend much further.

Peer support specialists will spend a great deal of time working one-on-one and in groups with their peers in treatment/recovery. They will help the client choose the best path for their own recovery. Peers will also work with their clients to connect them with resources in the community that will foster personal and professional growth. During this time, they will offer emotional support to help their peers develop the confidence to go out on their own after their initial treatment program is complete.

There will also be opportunities to divulge appropriate information about the peer’s own successful recovery. While everyone’s journey is different, the peer may find that their own experiences help those with whom he/she works.

The peer support specialist will also lead individual and group support and recovery meetings. These groups, in combination with therapeutic support from the counselor, can speed the recovery process and assist with minimizing the chances of relapse.

Emotional and Psychological Considerations

Peer support specialists are exposed to many of the same emotional and psychological strains that clinicians are. Working with those in recovery, especially those in early recovery, can be a roller coaster of emotions. Indeed, the support specialist – especially those with less experience, may find him or herself strongly affected by individual peers. It is, therefore, important that the support specialist have a strong and supportive team of their own that can offer personal and clinical advice when needed. This may come in the form of their own counselor or supervisor.

The Need for Peer Support

Peer support is a proven system to assist peers in recovery. Despite the demand for this position, there aren’t many high-paying positions available because it is not a direct part of the typical therapeutic plan. Those looking to become peer support specialists likely will want to do so to “give back” to the community that helps them.

Peer support work can be an excellent way to get the experience required to move into a clinical role.

Ultimately, peer recovery services are an important but ultimately underappreciated part of the overall therapeutic process. Certifications such as the CRSS in Florida have formalized the role with the goal of improving the quality of care and outcomes.