Have you experienced recovery from addiction, mental illness, or co-occurring substance and mental disorders? Do you want to help others find their own success?
Becoming a peer support specialist may be a great option for you.
What is a Peer Support Specialist?
A peer support specialist (PSS) is an individual in recovery from mental health and/or substance use issues who provides support to others living with a similar condition. They offer perspective, encouragement, and information on community resources.
These professionals are sometimes also referred to as peer recovery support specialists (PRSS), peer specialists, peer counselors, peer workers, certified peer specialists, or something similar.
Peer support is intended to complement, supplement and extend formal primary care services like therapy – not act as a substitute for them. Peer support's strength as a complimentary service is in its nature: informal, proactive, flexible, continual, and long-term. It fills the gaps that are often left by the conventional treatment system.
Studies show that peer support provides psychological and physical health benefits for both the receiver and the provider.
What Does a Peer Support Specialist Do?
Peer support has four core functions: assistance in daily management, social and emotional support, providing linkages to clinical care and community resources, and providing ongoing support over an extended time.
The exact tasks a peer counselor handles will vary based on the needs of the client and the policies of the support program.
Assisting clients with daily management might include helping clients maintain a self-care routine that meets their needs. They might suggest techniques for medication or treatment adherence or brainstorm exercise options. They can help clients develop and practice coping skills, like building a plan for what to do if they're in crisis.
Peer recovery support specialists are uniquely positioned to provide social and emotional support; they've been in their client's shoes but don't have a complicated personal or emotional history with them. They can offer an empathetic sounding board and provide examples from their own struggles to reduce stigma, provide encouragement, and offer hope.
Peer support specialists also know the ins and outs of resources that their clients might benefit from. This might include clinical resources, financial assistance programs, support groups, and more. They can suggest solutions and help clients connect. This might include helping clients navigate bureaucracy or transporting them to appointments. Some programs even provide vehicles for this purpose.
Where Can You Get Peer Support Specialist Jobs?
Peer support specialists are commonly employed by programs in:
- Outpatient counseling clinics
- Universities or community colleges
- Hospitals or wellness centers
- Community centers
- Telehealth services
Although peer support programs exist in many places nationwide, they're particularly necessary for small communities, rural communities, and anywhere else where it's difficult to access mental health services.
What is the Average Peer Support Specialist Salary?
Since most peer support specialists don’t have advanced training or education, the position pays less than other mental health jobs. Glassdoor and Salary.com put the national median salary at around $35,000 a year, with most jobs paying between $28k and $43k.
It varies by region and program. You can use the links above to check the average salary where you live.
How To Become A Certified Peer Support Specialist
Unfortunately, the process is different in every state, so it's nearly impossible to tell you definitively. We can still give you some advice on how to find out for yourself and what you can probably expect.
Find Out What Peer Support Specialist Jobs Exist Where You Are
Peer support is an emerging profession, and the adoption of programs is patchy, often depending on specific programs or funding.
Before you fall down the rabbit hole of how to become a peer recovery support specialist, it's a good idea to research the peer support programs in the area where you might want to work. How many peer recovery support specialist jobs are there? How many potential employers? How do they work? What do they pay?
Sometimes looking around online is no substitute for talking to a decision-maker for the program. Do they anticipate hiring more peer counselors in the next couple of years? What could you do to improve your chances of getting a job?
Research Peer Recovery Support Specialist Requirements in your State
Most places have a required state-level certification process and those that don't are in the process of developing one. Most likely, your first step will be to learn what would be required where you are and whether you qualify. If your state doesn't have requirements yet, look at what local professional organizations recommend.
The Doors to Well-Being Peer Specialist Database can be a good place to start in learning requirements and finding professional organizations or other useful resources. If you only need information for a specific state, click on the state name and it will give you all the information from that state on its own page.
- What is the certification body that applies to you? Note or bookmark their website. That's where you'll want to verify all requirements and information you'll gather.
- Does your jurisdiction treat the requirements for Mental Health PSSs and Substance Use PSSs separately? If so, make sure you only write down information for the program that applies to you. If you have experience with and are interested in both areas, research both but make sure you keep notes on which program requires what.
- What are other requirements to apply for the PSS training program? Note down the documentation you'll need to provide. Common requirements include:
- Background Check. Due to the nature of PSS programs, certain types of convictions are exempted while others are disqualifying. There may be specific conditions that rule you in or out.
- Personal Experience. Some jurisdictions require specific diagnoses, experience with behavioral health services, a certain length of time in recovery, or something similar.
- Educational Prerequisites. Typically, it's a high school diploma or GED.
- Professional Requirements. Common examples are recommendation letters, computer skills, and sometimes a valid driver's license.
- How much does training cost, usually? What are your funding options? Some states cover the cost if you're accepted, but if not, look for other possible sources of funding or financial assistance. What about the certification exam? Sometimes it's included in the cost of training, sometimes not.
If you started with the Doors to Well-Being site, you need to verify what you learned on your local certification body's official website and check if you missed any other requirements. That's the only place you're definitely going to find accurate and up-to-date information.
Find Peer Support Specialist Training
Once you've figured out if you're eligible, you need to check for approved training providers in your area.
Even states that don't require certification often have guidelines on the who and how of peer support training, but it's especially important for states with certification programs. States like Connecticut only accept one specific training provider, while other states will recognize any peer support training that educates on the Core Competencies (more on that in a bit).
It's very important to follow those guidelines. Once you have this information, you can start looking for details like upcoming training sessions, financial resources, and applications.
Complete Peer Support Training
The minimum peer support training requirements vary, but most states require at least 40 hours of education.
Your training will cover your state's Peer Support Specialist Core Competencies. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) developed basic Core Competency recommendations, then most states codified their own version into training requirements.
Often, the training requirements include:
- Knowledge of mental health / substance use conditions and treatments
- Clients' rights, confidentiality, and legal/ethical concerns
- Interpersonal skills
- How to foster recovery, resiliency, and wellness
- Community and other resources
- Teaching skills
- Trauma-informed support
Earn Your Peer Support Specialist Certification
As is the case with peer support training, the requirements and process for becoming a certified peer specialist vary from place to place.
You may need to meet additional requirements after training but before you take your certification exam. The most common is for you to complete a certain amount of work experience, paid or unpaid, supervised or otherwise.
Once your state-level certification is in hand, you may choose to earn national peer support specialist certification. There are several national certifications available at the moment. They don't override or replace your state-level certification process. However, they often have higher training, experience, or ethical standards that make you attractive to potential employers. Some national certifications may also come with professional or financial benefits.
Consider Online Peer Support Specialist Training
Online peer support specialist training can be a great way to gain knowledge. Ours is on-demand and self-paced, so you can fit your training in around other obligations. Online training is also helpful in locations where access to other forms of training may be limited.
Just remember, the most important thing is that the training format and provider are accepted where you intend to work. Do your research on what's required for you, then get ready to launch a new career