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Peer Support Specialist - why you need one

Updated on May 15, 2016
Peer Support Specialists Celebrate Life!
Peer Support Specialists Celebrate Life!

So.....What is a Peer Specialist?

Peer Support Specialists - sometimes called "Peers" or "Certified Peer Specialists" are recovery professionals who specialize hleping those living with mental illnesses - severe or moderate - achieve wellness and fulfillment.

Don't be scared! Please.....read on.....

Certified Peer Specialists (or CPSs) are trained, non-clinical professionals (working in clinical or non-clinical environments) who work in a wide variety of settings and situations to offer coaching and guidance to those using mental health services.

CPSs are a unique among mental health professionals.

First off, they have to have a mental health diagnosis and have to be - or to have been - a consumer of mental health services. In terms of mental health challengs, they have "been there done that" and have recovered to where they are ready to help others.

Peer Specialists are listeners, empathizes, and compassionate equals to their consumers (clients). In innumerable ways, they sit with their consumers, making the point to develop a relationship with whomever they are with.


But First.....

We enjoy what we do.

But wait a minute.....we?

That's right....."we."

You see, I've been a Peer Specialist (actually, a Certified Peer Specialist - or CPS) for about a year-and-a-half - and the journey has been awesome!

Congruent with the requirements of the position, I have dealt with my own mental health challenges (and even an emergency) before taking this job and took this job when I was well enough recovered so that I could help others.

Like most CPSs, I spend the majority of my time doing non-clinical recovery-based interventions with my consumers, working with them to form important life goals and helping to achieve them.

I enjoy the challenges I face. I enjoy the multitudes of people with whom I work and the diagnoses (mental health challenges) they face.

You see, we CPSs are a "new face" of the mental health. Instead of viewing our client (consumer) as a "diagnosis," we look at our consumers as PEOPLE with a mental health (MH) diagnoses - that is, the MH diagnosis is just one part of a person and is not who the person is - and that approach is refreshing to our consumers!

I have worked with people in their homes and out in their communities. I have helped people who were once afraid to leave their homes become comfortable with being in their communities and making friends.

This is what we do - and the cool thing is, the consumer does most of the work! We help them realize that they have what it takes to realize their dreams and the life they want to live. We empower them to realize they have what it takes to live the life that they want, on their terms.

But the coolness doesn't stop there! You see, we work in a multitude of environments.

Psychiatric hospitals? You'll find us there. Counseling agencies? Yep - there too. Wait.....how about drug and alcohol rehab centers? You guessed it! There too.

Again I will state - in order to qualify for our jobs we have to have had mental health challenges in the past. For example; CPSs who work in drug and alcohol rehab centers have to have been addicted or had trouble with drugs and alcohol so that they can become the true face of recovery to the people they are there to help.

Myself (and my coworkers) find that we have lots in common with our consumers - and that enables us to build trusting, lasting relationships that makes real, tangible differences in the lives of those with whom we work - and, consequently, in OUR own lives as well.

As a consumer, we listen to your concerns. We empathize instead of judge. We relate instead of "tell" or "prescribe." We help you overcome barriers caused by mental health challenges so that you can achieve wellness in your life - overcoming social anxiety, living on your own, or finding a job, to name a few things.

We are truly a unique and usual model - and we are catching on. Quickly.

Wouldn't you like to work with someone like us?

We Work Where YOU Are.....

As stated earlier we work almost everywhere Mental Health services can be found.

For example; we work in psychiatric wards to help consumers feel welcome in the facility. These places can be scary, and we help you feel at ease in adjusting to your surroundings.

But our work doesn't stop there!

We can also be found working in ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) teams, going out into the community (including people's homes) to help deliver medications and help work on goals, providing person-to-person, non-clinical counseling.

We even go out into the community individually.

That's right.

We visit with you in your home or sit with you in a coffee shop. We can even get pizza together! Why do we do this? We meet you on YOUR terms on YOUR TURF because we want YOU to trust us and feel comfortable. Wouldn't it be nice to have someone in the MH system try to earn YOUR trust?

But do we stop there? No way.....

We do things with you, too. In some situations, we can go shopping or can teach you skills - such as how to use a local food pantry or how to navigate the seemingly impossible public assistance system.

Whatever the setting, we are gaining a reputation - quickly - because we bring about healing, peace, and balance - sometimes doing in as little as six months to a year whereas the same progress with just a therapist may take several years .

I have seen miracles take place in people's lives. I have seen people who were previously afraid to leave their house become social butterflies. I have seen people struggling with depression turn their lives around and realize the light of life. I have heard of consumers who had little work experience gain successful and gainful, satisfying employment - all because they worked with a Peer Specialist who showed them how to take control of their lives.

We work in a very wide variety of Mental Heath settings and see you, the consumer as the "expert" on what you're facing - a strong paradigm shift in the Mental Health field indeed. We are there to offer encouragement and suggestions rather than "tell" you what you "need" to do or "need" not to do - as so many have become accustomed to hearing from Mental Heath "professionals."

We are PEOPLE.....NOT our diagnosis
We are PEOPLE.....NOT our diagnosis

Why we are making IMPACT!

We operate from the Recovery Model standpoint which basically states that the consumer (you) should be involved decisions regarding your care and the practitioner should involve you in your treatment plan.

Folks, this is a game-changer.

But don't just take my word for it; take it from the National Association of Social Workers. "The Recovery Model states that a program’s philosophy should acknowledge and encourage consumer involvement and decision-making" states the NASW article "The Mental Health Recovery Model.

"The mental health Recovery Model is a treatment concept wherein a service environment is designed such that consumers have primary control over decisions about their own care. This is in contrast to most traditional models of service delivery, in which consumers are instructed what to do, or simply have things done for them with minimal, if any, consultation for their opinions."

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration takes things further, arguing that "recovery is an individual’s journey of healing and transformation to live a meaningful life in a community of his or her choice while striving to achieve maximum human potential."

So there you have it. Official, professional statements to back up what I'm saying.

You see we CPSs bring something different to the mental health "table:" we see the you as a Person, not your diagnosis or condition(s).

Sure; when working with you we may inquire as to your diagnosis in order to help get an understanding of what it is you're facing - but we see you as a "person."

You have likes and dislikes, right? You have hobbies, interests, views, opinions.....maybe (hopefully) even friends, family.....right?

You are a whole person, comprised of your various "parts." You cannot be summed up in a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of disability descriptions.

As we are still gaining momentum however, the road ahead for the Peer Specialist is still long (but getting shorter!).

I have heard, time and again, people's' stories of having seen a seemingly endless array of psychiatrists or therapists, some even having been institutionalized for periods ranging from months to years.

Now; in the scheme of things, these "places" or "things" do have their places. I'm not denying that. If you are suffering through an addition, recovery and "detox" centers can be very useful. And certainly, a diagnosis can help a therapist treat your condition to help with your overall goal of wellness.

But there seems to be a common theme here; within the various services or institutions, people grew used to being talked down to; having their fate and decisions that affected their lives made for them.

To many consumers and families, the CPS movement takes some getting used to but, at the same time, is VERY liberating.

In fact - liberation, or the idea of liberation, is what got the CPS movement started in the first place. The Peer Support movement has its roots in people facing these situations, mainly those who had spent years in psychiatric units and were eager to seek an alternative.

In short; the system needed to change, and they were going to do it.

"De-­‐institutionalization of large state mental hospitals had begun in the late 1960s consequent with laws established to limit involuntary commitment. It was at this time that ex-­‐patients began to find each other, form in small groups and organize in different cities all over the country, though they would not initially know about each others activities" writes Gayle Bluebird, RN, Consumer Advocate and Director of Peer Services at the Delaware Psychiatric Center in New Castle, DE. "They met in living rooms, church basements or community centers, expressing outrage and anger at a system that had caused them harm."

Basically, clients who felt as if they had been wronged by the system started getting together and forming coalitions. Eventually, they became powerful enough to where they began influencing public policy and began to voice, quite passionately, their opposition to a system that was full of mental health "professionals" making medical and psychiatric decisions for them without their consent.

In a nutshell, this has evolved into the modern CPS movement.

"Peer support for people with similar life experiences (e.g., people who’ve lost children, people with alcohol and substance abuse problems, etc.) has proven to be tremendously important towards helping many move through difficult situations" writes Shery Mead, MSW and Cheryl MacNeil, PhD.

"In general, peer support has been defined by the fact that people who have like experiences can better relate and can consequently offer more authentic empathy and validation. It is also not uncommon for people with similar lived experiences to offer each other practical advice and suggestions for strategies that professionals may not offer or even know about."


My Experience.....

So just to give you more of an idea of what you will be facing when working with a CPS, let me tell you a little bit more about my experience(s).

As is previously stated, my job is community-based. That means that I meet my consumers in their community, either in their homes or in public. I come to them (though occasionally I get lazy and ask them to come to me!).

My job consists of sitting with consumers and getting to know them; building trust. Sometimes I spend several hours with them, just getting to know them. Sometimes I sit with them in their homes; sometimes we talk over a game of pool (or chess).

Does this appeal to you? Oh, c'mon - sure it does.....

So.....as we get to know and trust each other, we work together to set recovery goals. Let me repeat that: we work TOGETHER to set recovery goals. I CANNOT (and would not) set a recovery goal without a consumer's consent.

Just sitting and talking - like peer to peer individuals - gives me an enormous amount of insight a person's life - sometimes even more than they give to therapists, Doctors, or other caseworkers.

The fact that I come to my consumers as an equal means that barriers to trust are broken down. Many are people who are used to being "screwed" by the Mental Health system.

I listen to their concerns and challenges; I empathize with them as they describe pain and suffering and I affirm them when they talk about wanting to change, encouraging them along the way and offering suggestions - never demands - on how they could go about changing their lives.

I help them settle conflicts with Doctors. I offer suggestions and even a little motivation as they describe fears about doing community activities, leaving the comfort of their homes and "routines."

My consumers truly face a wide variety of situations. Some experience mild to moderate depression; some have been through Traumatic Brain Injury. The situations are as different as the people, and I have met - and worked with - some of the most amazing people along the way - and I use "amazing" very sparingly, seeing that as a cliche that is too widely used.

My jobs is awesome. I cross the paths of not only the consumers but their family members, caregivers, and caseworkers. What we do affects everyone; when a family member sees, for the first time, their 22 year old learning to socialize and trust someone, the relief and joy that is felt and realized is what really justifies, for me, what I do.

Now, let me be clear; my relationships with consumers don't always work out. I have been involved in Peer/Consumer relationships whereas, for some reason or another, we have not clicked and very little progress was made. I have been "fired" by consumers who wanted to work with someone else.

But.....when I hear from a family member that their son (my client) is gaining in confidence, independence, and self-advocacy because of what we have done together, THAT makes me smile.

That is wellness! THIS IS WHAT WE DO!

This may sound like conceit; actually, it is instead an acknowledgement that, in following a person-centered, recovery-based approach, we CPSs help affect REMARKABLE change in the lives of our consumers - and these changes are LIFELONG and LIFE-CHANGING!





Would you benefit from having a Peer Specialist work with you?

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The Myths....

Ok......first of all, we do this job because we love it. Not because of the money.

Believe you me, there are plenty of other jobs one could do for the money if that was the primary motivational factor.

CPSs can typically expect to make between $12 and $16/hour, the lower end of that equation being more common.

Some companies offer benefits; others employ their "peers" on what's called a fee-for-service basis. These are hourly positions whereas the CPS typically gets paid only when they are with a consumer. That means the CPS typically makes their own schedule but is offered no vacation/sick time and if a consumer fails to show for the appointment, the CPS loses money. That's typically the scenario found in community-based CPS work (so do us a favor - keep your appointments!).

One thing to keep in mind though; since peer specialists are employed by agencies reimbursed through private or public insurance, check and see if the agency offering CPS services accepts your insurance (which is usually no problem for those receiving state insurance). Also, because CPSs work in mental healthcare settings, they are bound by HIPAA and confidentiality and should fully explain that upon your first meeting.

For Veterans

Good news! The VA offers CPS services and all VA CPSs are veterans. I know that you - as a veteran - have unique needs (especially if you have been in combat and are in counseling or are receiving psychiatric services for combat-related mental health challenges) and the CPSs there, themselves being veterans, will be able to relate to you regarding your experiences in a way that could not be done so if you met with a non-veteran CPS.

If you have access to a major city, the VA will most likely have CPSs on staff. I encourage you, from the bottom of my heart, to seek out these services if you feel as if you need some help.

Even if you just want someone with whom to relate about your combat experiences or challenges adjusting to civilian life (or whatever military-related challenge you are facing), I encourage you to seek CPS services. You may be surprised at just how helpful that will be.

Thank you for your service.

The comfort of healing

Yes.....you can have coffee with your Peer!
Yes.....you can have coffee with your Peer!

Decisions decisions.....

So....is having a CPS right for you?

Please keep in mind that one of the joys of being paired with a CPS is that the service is completely voluntary. If you enter into services and love it, good! If not, that's ok.

The CPS movement in mental health is truly groundbreaking.

Now instead of just having to be part of a system that tells you what's wrong with you, what to do, and how to do it, you have the chance to sit with someone who's been through similar experiences and who's going to validate you, help you to become EMPOWERED, and show you that not only do you have what it takes to recover from your challenges, but that living the life that you want to live is possible and achievable.

Let's kick start this journey!

Who we serve.....

We serve.....everybody!

As mentioned before - the range of challenges my consumers face can be from mild depression to traumatic brain injury to bi-polar disorder. The age ranges of my consumers varies from the early 20s to the late 60s - making for a truly diverse population. No two days are ever the same, and even the same people change as you build the trust and the relationship.

This is part of what makes my job truly rewarding. I enjoy the challenge of trying to get into someone else's reality to help understand their situation - and being that most of my people have some sort of disability, doing just that can be a challenge because holding basic conversations can be a challenge, contributing to why many of my consumers have found socializing and community integration difficult.

If someone suffers with bipolar disorder and have schizoaffective tendancies, it's very often the case that logical subject-verb agreement in conversation is very challenging.

For example; let's say I enter someone's home to start the session. The ensuing conversation may go as follows:

Me: "Hi! How are you doing today?"

Consumer: "Not good Craig just not too good."

Me: "Ok.....what's bothering you? You can tell me if you like."

Consumer. "Craig, It's just the weather. I mean the rain.....it's just......bad. My mother says I shouldn't go out today because last time I went out it wasn't so good and I spent all my money though I don't know why she controls the money - I mean, it' snot like she's a bad person but just that she fell the other day (referencing a story he had told a week ago) and my brother called her and it was a mess. It's not that I'm going manic I mean haha the world's on fire, know what I mean? I'm gonna get my guitar out and jam hahahaha. I'm just not in the mood to do anything today craig really but maybe if you want to, we can go out and do something? I don't want to disappoint you because my case worker says I should be going out and.....I dunno craig I'm a little tired this morning...."

Me: "Oh ok.....you're a little nervous about going out today?"

Consumer: " Yea I know I mean it's not my car it's a good car (we typically use our personal vehicles but in this example the consumer is referring to HIS personal vehicle) but I just dunno because the roads.....and plus everybody out there kinda stares at me and makes me feel a little weired but who knows maybe they're weird......I mean maybe they're schizing out who knows, Craig? Maybe the cops will be downtown keeping an eye on things but we could go get coffee if you wanted to or stop off at the place where we were last time and see the pretty lady there....."

Me: "That's ok. If you want we could just stay here and chill but your goal is to get into the community, so do you want to talk a little and then maybe go out?"

While the above example is not a description of what transpired with someone, it is an idea of how a conversation can go with someone who has this service. This is just one example, but through this example, one may see how when someone with my training comes in to talk to this person, we have the time, patience, and ability to sit with them to understand what they are saying and relate to how they are feeling on particular days.

I know what you're thinking though.....if I see people with disabilities, whats the chance that someone will become violent on me?

If someone is that violent, they are experiencing too many challenges to be entering into services, at least from what I have experienced. Though we are able to relate on an "equal" or "peer-to-peer" basis, we are behavioral workers and are not able to restrain/deal with people with frequent violent physical outbursts. That is beyond our training and usually beyond what most insurers will pay for regarding a diagnosis as criteria for program entry.

I HAVE encountered individuals who have gotten mad and impatient, but that is more the exception than the norm.

We can see anybody.....as long as they have a mental heath diagnosis. Since the payor source of most CPS jobs is either private or state insurance, a Mental Health diagnosis is is usually a requirement for someone to enter into services.



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