Working in peer support, the ethical and legal considerations can seem daunting! Confidentiality, privacy laws, professional boundaries… It can all begin to feel like a little overwhelming.
Don’t worry, we are here to simplify everything for you.
In this article we will provide some practical guidance and break down some of the complex concepts into easy to understand terms. The topic of peer support ethics doesn’t need to be confusing.
Whether you are a seasoned peer support worker or just starting out, we’ve got you covered. By the end of this article you’ll feel confident and equipped to handle these important aspects of your role with ease.
Table of Contents
What are Ethics in Peer Support
In the world of peer support, ethics simply refers to the guidelines and principles that peer support workers follow.
They allow us to provide the possible help and support, without doing any harm in the process.
In other words, its all about doing the right thing and treating others with respect and dignity.
For example, they include keeping things confidential and not sharing personal information without permission. They also include simple things like being honest, trustworthy, and understanding different cultures and backgrounds.
Ultimately, applying ethical standards in peer support creates a safe and supportive environment that’s consistent. where people can work towards their recovery goals.
Legal Considerations in Peer Support
Within ethical guidelines, there are some legal considerations you need to be aware of. These are set up to protect both peers, and the individuals seeking support.
Keep in mind, that there may be additional things to consider depending on where you live.
Maintaining confidentiality is a fundamental aspect of the peer support role. When we say fundamental, we mean that this is the foundation that effective peer support is built on. As peer support workers, we must respect the privacy of the individuals we work with.
We have to ensure that their personal information remains confidential. By personal information, we are referring to pretty much everything.
Not only does it cover their name and medical history, but anything they say to you while supporting them.
Peer support workers need to be aware of the laws and policies regarding confidentiality. This includes the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States, and follow the guidelines to protect the privacy of their clients.
Not to mention, failing to do so can lead to some pretty serious consequences.
Confidentiality is a huge deal. Aside from being part of peer support ethics, it’s a legal obligation in most cases. That being said, there are instances when peer support workers may be obligated to report certain information.
For example, there may be a situation where there is an immediate threat of harm to the individual or others. In these cases, a peer support worker may have a duty to report this information to the appropriate authorities.
This is often referred to as the Tarasoff rule. While this isn’t a federal law, most states have adopted some form of this rule as a way to protect potential victims. Understanding the boundaries of mandatory reporting and the legal requirements for your jurisdiction is crucial.
This is not only to ensure the safety of those you support, but to stay within the law.
In addition to confidentiality, peer support workers must also be familiar with the privacy laws that manage the handling of personal information.
These laws vary depending on the jurisdiction, but generally aim to protect individuals privacy and regulate the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data.
Familiarizing yourself with the law in your jurisdiction will help you safeguard the rights of your clients. Again, failure to adhere to these laws can have serious consequences. Understanding them will help protect yourself as well.
To ensure compliance with legal requirements, it is highly recommended that you talk to your local agency or supervisor regarding specific legal considerations.
Different states or agencies may have additional regulations or aspects that you need to be aware of in your role as a peer support worker. Seeking guidance from knowledgeable sources will help you navigate any unique legal obligations.
Furthermore, it will ensure you are providing support within the boundaries of the law.
Ethical Considerations in Peer Support
Peer support ethics are about more than just doing the right thing. They are needed to provide effective support and to ensure the safety of the individuals we work with. Moreover, these ethical guidelines are woven into the core competencies of peer support.
Breaking ethical guidelines usually doesn’t come with the same level of consequences as violating HIPAA.
Still, that doesn’t make them any less important.
Boundaries and Dual Relationships
Maintaining appropriate boundaries is crucial to your role. As peer support workers, we must be mindful of our interactions with the individuals we work with and avoid dual relationships.
Conflicts of interest can become a problem and these relationships can cause us to lose our objectivity. In other words, we lose sight of our role in the relationship.
Peer support workers should always strive to establish clear boundaries. Doing so ensures that our decisions and actions are guided by the best interests of the people we serve.
Failing to set clear boundaries can lead to negative consequences that can affect our clients, as well as ourselves.
Gifts and Other Types of Compensation
Sometimes in your role as a peer specialist, an individual may offer you a gift. Most likely, its simply a token of their gratitude for helping them through a difficult time. While it may seem harmless, it most likely is a violation of your peer support ethics.
In some areas, ethics state that “peer support workers will not accept gifts with a value of $25 or more”.
Personally, I would stay away from that situation all together. Mainly, because it can start to blur the lines of the professional relationship.
Not only that, but it can lead to misunderstandings later on.
As peer support workers, informed consent is an ethical obligation. This means explaining the nature of the support we provide, the potential risks and benefits, and any limitations to confidentiality.
For instance, if you are a mandated reporter, which we discussed earlier, you are obligated to inform the individuals you work with.
Informed consent ensures that individuals have a clear understanding of what to expect from the peer support relationship. Moreover, it allows them to make informed decisions about their involvement and the direction of their care.
Duty of Care
In peer support, we have what is called a duty of care towards the individuals we support. This means that we should act in a way that prioritizes the wellbeing and safety of those individuals. Moreover, it means taking reasonable steps to prevent harm and provide appropriate support.
This lines up with one of the principles of peer support “Do no harm”. However, it may also require advocating for individuals when we notice something that needs to be addressed.
Overall, duty of care is something we should always be aware of and strive to maintain in all our interactions.
Professional Standards and Codes of Conduct
To ensure ethical practice and maintain professional standards, many organizations and associations have developed codes of conduct for peer support.
These codes outline the expectations, responsibilities, and ethical guidelines that we should follow.
It is important as a peer support worker to familiarize yourself with these codes and incorporate them into your practice. Furthermore, there may be additional or different codes of conduct depending on where you are working.
Be sure to ask a supervisor or fellow peer specialist about the codes of conduct for the organization you work for.
Supervision for Peer Support Workers
Supervision is a vital part of effective peer support and allows for additional help and feedback. Regular supervision sessions provide an opportunity for us to reflect on our practice, seek guidance, and address and challenges or concerns.
Similarly, it provides the space for peer support workers to enhance our skills and maintain our own wellbeing.
Also, depending on where you work, you may be required to have supervision hours to maintain ethical guidelines.
Most likely, this will take place with a clinical supervisor who is a licensed mental health professional. They might be group sessions, one on one, or sometimes both.
If you are ever struggling in your role as a peer support worker, you can always request additional supervision hours. This can give you one on one time to ask questions and get personal feedback on your performance.
It may sound intimidating but the benefits will be worth it, for you, and the individuals you support.
Organizational Policies and Procedures
Organizations that utilize peer support should have clear policies and procedures in place to guide their work. These will differ from place to place, so it is always good to familiarize yourself with them when begin your new role.
Sticking to these policies and procedures will help you become effective in your position. Not to mention, it will keep you out of trouble with the boss!
Training and Education
While there are certain roles where peer support is voluntary, you will most likely need training and education to ethically work in your position. Additionally, you may need to obtain CE’s or Continuing Education credits to maintain your certification.
These requirements vary from state to state, but typically you will need a certain number of CE’s every 1-2 years.
Within the organization you work for, you may be required to complete additional CE’s as well. Be sure to speak with a supervisor or a fellow peer to determine if you fall into this category.
P.S. There are even CE classes on the topic of peer support ethics!
Peer Support Ethics: Final Thoughts
Here at MHAPSS, we believe that peer support has the potential to continue making a positive impact in the lives of individuals facing mental health challenges or recovering from substance abuse.
The only way we can ensure this happens is by being aware of the legal and ethical considerations that come with our role. By understanding and adhering to the considerations, peer support workers can ensure the safety, privacy, and wellbeing of the individuals they work with.
Remember, peer support is a continuous learning experience and staying up to date can be a challenge all in itself.
Be sure to check out the rest of our resources on peer support and don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you have questions or need some additional support in your journey. -The MHAPSS Team
Frequently Asked Questions
Can peer support workers share personal experiences with others?
Yes, peer support workers can share their personal experiences as long as it is relevant and appropriate within the context of the support they provide. However, they should always prioritize the needs and experiences of the individuals they support.
Are peer support workers required to have professional qualifications?
Peer support work does not always require formal professional qualifications. However, specialized training and education programs are available to equip peer support workers with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively support others.
Can peer support workers disclose confidential information to their supervisors?
Peer support workers should exercise caution when sharing confidential information with their supervisors. It is important to follow organizational policies and procedures regarding confidentiality and seek clarification if unsure about the boundaries of disclosure.
What is the difference between a peer support worker and a mental health professional?
While both peer support workers and mental health professionals provide support and assistance to individuals facing mental health challenges, peer support workers bring the unique perspective of their lived experiences. Mental health professionals often have formal education and training in specific therapeutic modalities and may provide a wider range of clinical interventions.
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.