What is a Peer Support Specialist?

Peer support specialists are people with life experience who have been through situations similar to those they support. They have had success in recovery and have a first-hand understanding of the healing process. They can help with addictions, mental health conditions, medical conditions and disabilities.

While peer support specialists do not substitute or replace a healthcare provider’s treatment when needed, they can provide a unique layer of support.

Read on to learn more about peer support specialists, who they help, and the benefits and challenges associated with peer work.

What do peer support specialists do?

Rehabilitation is a process that may include many types of support, including clinical treatment by health care providers, social support, medication, peer support and self-help groups, and faith-based strategies.

Peer support specialists help in this process and provide other services, including reducing stigma, improving a person’s quality of life during recovery, and reducing the need for certain health services. For example, studies have shown that this layer of support can reduce emergency room visits, reduce treatment readmissions, and reduce hospital visits for those who have recovered.

Peer support specialist roles or jobs may include:

  • Cultivate relationships based on trust, respect, empathy, mutual experience and choice
  • Support through verification, encouragement, empowerment and highlighting
  • Share their personal experiences (when appropriate) to inspire hope
  • Recognize a person’s personal beliefs, cultural values, past experiences and personal needs
  • Provide education about recovery, defending yourself, and how to deal with treatment or the health care system
  • educate the public or legislators
  • Help during a crisis by discussing warning signs, healthy responses, and sharing resources
  • Supervise the work of other peer support specialists
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Peer support services are often successful in addition to other specialized mental health or medical services.

Peer Support Settings

Peer support specialists work with people in a variety of settings, including individually, in groups, in-person, by text or phone, and online.

Ability to work with peers

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has identified certain core competencies related to providing peer support. These skills can guide people in providing peer support services to others.

The five competencies that ensure peer support work are:

  • Recovery-oriented, enabling people to choose to recover and find meaning and purpose throughout the process
  • People-centred, celebrating one’s strengths and focusing on personal needs and goals
  • Volunteering and prioritizing autonomy, choice and collaboration to allow a person to play an important role in the recovery process
  • Be relationship-centric by building a foundation built on respect, trust, mutual relationships, and life experiences
  • Understanding Trauma by Emphasizing Physical, Emotional, and Psychological Safety

Who do peer support specialists help?

Peer work is becoming a more established part of mental health and substance use services. A review of peer support experts suggests that peer support may be effective for different populations and groups, including:

  • mental health
  • Addiction and Substance Use
  • People with mental health problems and participating in the criminal justice system
  • young people
  • medically and socially marginalized people
  • disabled
  • family

Benefits and Challenges of Peer Support Work

While peer support work has its challenges, it can be enriching. People who received support from colleagues reported feeling understood, trusted and respected.

Receiving peer support can also improve communication and relationships with healthcare providers, increase engagement and consistency in treatment, and reduce the need to use more intensive services.

Challenges identified by peer support workers include:

  • Transitioning from a patient to a support role
  • Job roles and boundaries are not clear
  • Lack of skills and training
  • Emotional stress from taking on a helping role
  • low compensation
  • Difficulty managing your own physical and mental health
  • Discrimination and prejudice from non-peer workers

Many peer support specialists are satisfied with their work. Factors that contribute to a positive feeling about work include:

  • Clearly understand roles and boundaries
  • empowerment
  • supportive organizational culture
  • Build meaningful working relationships with peers

Many peer support workers feel empowered by providing these services. Research shows that peer support workers have improved self-esteem, self-awareness, personal growth and skill development.

Plus, it’s satisfying to know that they are helping others by sharing their journey.

Become a Peer Support Specialist

Requirements to become a Peer Support Specialist may vary from state to state. However, it usually involves learning and practicing the application of abilities and skills. There are also national certification programs. You can find out more about becoming a peer support specialist through Mental Health America.


Peer support specialists are people with lived experience who help others through empathy, respect and empowerment. The training they receive enables them to provide help focused on the recovery needs of others. People with mental health conditions, substance use disorders, medical conditions, disabilities and more can benefit from the services provided by peer support workers. These services can improve quality of life and reduce the chance of symptoms and relapse.

VigorTip words

Peer support workers can be an invaluable part of the recovery process. Using your own experience to help others on the road to recovery can be comforting and empowering work. Getting support from others who share experiences can remind you that you are not alone. It can also help you feel more confident and consistent as you seek to change your life.