So maybe its like this: You hear of this new career as a peer support specialist. It sounds great because you can use your own life experience to help others who are going through similar struggles. Not only that, but it allows you to continue working on yourself at the same time!.
But still, you might be wondering, is peer support a good career choice?
In our own opinion, it’s the best career choice ever! But we are peer specialists ourselves, so we are probably a little biased. So let’s take a look at some of the supporting evidence for our claim and you can decide for yourself.
Table of Contents
What Is A Peer Support Specialist
First things first, let’s define what a peer specialist is. It would be a little hard to determine whether peer support is a good career choice if you didn’t even know what it was.
In the simplest of terms, a peer support specialist is someone who has personal experience with a mental health condition or substance abuse issues.
They use this experience to provide support and assistance to others facing similar challenges.
Moreover, they offer genuine empathy and understanding. This plus a little practical guidance can go a long way in helping individuals navigate the road to recovery.
There are A LOT of different types of peer support.
However, mental health and addiction are what we specialize in, so this is the area we will focus on. That being said, if you are focused on a different area of peer support, this article will still be helpful. This is because much of the information still applies.
Overview of the Role and Responsibilities
As a peer support specialist, the primary role is to provide emotional support and encouragement to individuals struggling with challenges similar to their own. They can act as a mentor, helping individuals develop coping strategies and access resources.
Additionally, they can educate others about the recovery process and different aspects related to mental health and addiction.
More importantly however, they serve as an example that shows recovery is possible. Being that they have been through the struggle and know how hard it can be, they can connect with individuals on a deeper level.
This allows those people they work with to see that there is hope for a better life.
Their responsibilities can include running peer support groups, advocating for their clients, helping with community outreach and much more. In truth, it just depends on the setting and model of peer support you are working in.
Education and Training for Peer Support Specialists
Depending on where you live, there will be different requirements for the level of training you need to become a peer support specialist. That being said, the educational requirements are usually minimal to be qualified for the training.
In other words, getting started is fairly easy.
Formal Education Requirements
While a formal degree is not always mandatory, some employers will prefer candidates with some level of higher education. Having a degree in a related field such as psychology, social work, or counseling will definitely be beneficial.
Mostly because these areas will provide a solid foundation of knowledge and skills necessary for the role.
Not to mention, having a degree in a related field will most likely allow you to make more money. If you already have one, it will be much easier to excel and grow in your career as a peer specialist. That being said, it is still fairly easy to find a position without a degree.
Actually, being a peer specialist is one of the few career choices that can offer larger opportunities without a formal education. We have seen plenty of peer specialists make their way into top positions without it.
Certification and Licensing
Certification as a peer support specialist is usually required and can be obtained through recognized organizations, such as the Mental Health America (MHA) or the International Association of Peer Supporters (iNAPS).
These certifications demonstrate competence and adherence to ethical standards in the field.
The most common way of becoming certified however, is through a local or state credentialing board. Almost every state has their own training program that offers these credentials for little to no cost.
Be aware though, there are different names for peer specialists.
Some states refer to this role as a peer support specialist, others may use the term recovery coach, peer support worker, peer recovery specialist, or something similar.
Specialized Training Programs
In addition to formal education and certification, specialized training programs are available for peer support specialists. These programs cover a wide range of topics and techniques.
Some of the more popular ones include:
- SMART Recovery
- WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan)
- MBSR (Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention)
- MI (Motivational Interviewing)
Getting extra certifications can provide opportunities for advancement and additional pay. Moreover, they look great on your resume when you are looking for a new position
Continuing Education Opportunities
If you are pursuing a career in peer support, continuing education will most likely be a requirement. This helps peer specialists to stay updated with the latest research, techniques, and best practices in the field.
Luckily, many organizations offer workshops, conferences, and online courses designed specifically for peer support.
There are continuing education classes for just about every topic you could imagine. They can range from classes about ethics and cultural competency, to transitional housing and trauma informed care.
In all reality, these specialized training programs and continuing education classes go hand in hand. Most of the time, these programs will offer continuing education credits. That way, you are getting two things in one.
Dont let all the continuing education scare you. Most of them are free and in truth, they are actually pretty fun.
Alternatively, if you love learning new things, then peer support is definitely a good career choice for you!
Job Opportunities and Growth Potential
The demand for peer support specialists is steadily increasing as mental health awareness grows and the benefits of peer support become more widely recognized.
In fact, according to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) projected the U.S. would need over 1.1 million peer support workers.
Basically, this is saying that there will be plenty of opportunities for anyone choosing peer support as a career.
More and more, it is becoming integrated into various healthcare settings, including hospitals, mental health clinics, and community organizations.
Industries and Settings Where They Work
Peer support specialists can find employment in a range of settings, such as:
Inside each one of these settings, there are numerous positions and opportunities for peer specialists. Besides, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Depending on where you live, there may even be opportunities to work for state run organizations.
Salary and Compensation
While the salary of a peer support specialist may vary depending on factors such as location, experience, and employer, it is generally competitive.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for mental health and substance abuse social workers, which includes peer support specialists, was $47,660 as of May 2020.
That being said, we have recently seen listings for peer support specialist positions starting at $59,000. Obviously, these types of positions usually have higher requirements.
That is where specialized training programs come in.
The Benefits of Being a Peer Support Specialist
One of the most rewarding aspects of choosing peer support as a career is the personal fulfillment derived from helping others. The ability to make a positive impact on someone’s life and witness their growth and recovery is incredible.
As a peer support specialist, you have the opportunity to affect real change. Regardless of any mental health or addiction challenges, we help people to live their best lives.
Moreover, we instill hope and resilience, teaching individuals that they too can overcome their obstacles.
On a bigger scale, we have the chance to transform the way we look at health care. By advocating for clients, we can shape the current healthcare system into a more person centered experience. The ripple effect of their work can extend beyond individuals and positively influence communities.
Professional Growth and Development
The role of a peer support specialist offers ample opportunities for professional growth and development. Through ongoing training, supervision, and collaboration with other mental health professionals, peer support specialists can expand their skills, knowledge, and impact within the field.
There may also be opportunities to take on leadership roles or engage in advocacy work.
Challenges of Working in Peer Support
As with any career choice, there are some downsides. We won’t lie to you, peer support can be demanding, emotionally and otherwise. Let’s look at some of the potential challenges you may face working in this field.
Emotional Demands and Self-Care
As individuals share deeply personal and distressing experiences, it can begin to take a toll on your wellbeing.
This is why it is so important for peer support specialists to prioritize self-care.
This is where learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries comes in.
They help prevent emotional exhaustion and promote a positive experience for everyone involved. Believe me, vicarious trauma and burnout are real.
And they are not fun places to be.
Seeking support from peers and supervisors, and practicing effective stress management techniques are part of self care. In other words, don’t hesitate to talk to someone if you’re struggling.
Dealing With Potential Burnout
If you are trying to decide whether peer support is a good career choice, burnout is something to think about. Unfortunately, the nature of the work can put peer support specialists at risk. Given the emotional intensity and potential exposure to trauma this is something to consider.
One study puts the burnout rate for peer providers as high at 67%.
Because of this, you will need to know how to recognize the signs of burnout. These include things such as increased cynicism, emotional exhaustion, and a decline in job satisfaction.
Again, implementing self-care strategies and maintaining a healthy work-life balance are keys to avoiding burnout.
Unfortunately, there are some organizations who use peer support as “cheap labor”. Even more, there is sometimes a stigma around the idea of peer support. There are still many mental health professionals who consider the role as “less than”.
Some supervisors fail to see the contribution that peer specialists make to the recovery process. They may see them as “unqualified” and avoid giving them the respect and recognition they deserve.
(I have experienced this personally, and believe me, it’s not a good feeling)
The funny part, as peer specialists, we are not trying to compete with counselors or other professionals. It is meant to be a collaborative and complementary approach to help the individual.
Is Peer Support A Good Career Choice For You?
At the end of the day, you can minimize any negative impact by practicing self care and taking steps to maintain your wellbeing. For this reason, the pros far outweigh any of the cons, at least we think so.
Let’s recap some of those pros and cons.
So, as a final note on whether peer support is a good career choice, it really just depends. We know, its such a typical answer and one that can be a little irritating. However, it really just depends on you.
Do you like helping others?
Is learning new things and expanding your expertise something you enjoy?
Do you enjoy working as a team and problem solving to find the best solution?
If you answered yes to these questions, then becoming a peer specialist is probably something you would enjoy. As a career it is incredibly rewarding and the potential for growth (both personally and professionally) is always a plus.
We Need You!
There is a need for more people in the mental health space to fill the ever growing demand. If you are considering pursuing this career, we encourage you to do so. To top it off, our ever expanding library of resources will be there to help you every step of the way.
We look forward to having you as part of the peer support community! Who knows, maybe one day we will be working together!
Are working in peer support? Leave a comment and let us know whether you think it’s a good career choice. It might help someone make the decision to take the leap!
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Frequently Asked Questions
What qualifications do I need to become a peer support specialist?
To become a peer support specialist, a formal degree is not always mandatory, but some level of higher education in a related field is preferred. understanding
What is the average salary of a peer support specialist?
The salary of a peer support specialist can vary depending on factors such as location, experience, and employer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for mental health and substance abuse social workers, which includes peer support specialists, was $47,660 as of May 2020. That being said, we have seen job listings with a starting salary of $59,000.
How can I prevent burnout as a peer support specialist?
Preventing burnout as a peer support specialist involves prioritizing self-care, setting boundaries, seeking support from peers and supervisors, and practicing effective stress management techniques. Regular self-care activities, such as exercise, hobbies, and seeking counseling if needed, can help maintain well-being.
What settings can peer support specialists work in?
Peer support specialists can work in various settings, including mental health clinics, hospitals, community centers, substance abuse treatment facilities, correctional facilities, and veteran support organizations.
Elijah Meason is a Certified Peer Support Worker in the State of New Mexico. He is a SMART Recovery facilitator and is working toward getting his Masters degree in social work. He is currently working at a dual diagnosis treatment center helping individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges.