Many types of professionals can help people living with mental health concerns. If you’ve experienced mental health issues yourself, you might have interest in a career where you can help others facing the same challenges. At the same time, you might feel unsure whether you’re interested in—or able to pursue—the years of education required to become a therapist or psychologist.
Some careers in the mental health field are less well-known than others. Not all require graduate school. One unique career path is the peer support specialist. This position differs somewhat from other mental health professions because it requires you to combine specialized training with your personal experience of living with mental health concerns.
What Is a Peer Support Specialist?
If you’ve made progress in your recovery from a mental health condition and want to provide support to others dealing with similar issues, you might find a position as a peer support specialist ideal. As a peer support specialist, you’ll provide support to others living with mental health issues—your peers. This support may be particularly valuable because you’re able to offer perspective from your own lived experience.
Therapists and psychologists have received extensive education and training in helping people work through and learn to cope with all manner of mental health and emotional concerns. As part of this process, they’ll have spent some time “doing their own therapy,” or addressing any personal difficulties or challenges in their lives. However, anyone can work to become a therapist or psychologist, whether they’ve dealt with mental health issues or not.
A shared history of mental health challenges can help you connect with someone on an even deeper level. This may be particularly important for people with mental health issues who have had a negative or difficult experience with previous therapists. Peer support can also help individuals who live in an area with limited access to therapy.
Peer support may not offer a complete alternative to therapy, but your role may fill a deficit in your community. You can also support someone who’s having a hard time making progress in therapy alone.
What Do Peer Support Specialists Do?
Peer specialists can offer support in several different ways. You might assist your client with:
- Planning for a crisis
- Finding and accessing health care or other needed services
- Developing coping skills
- Identifying recovery goals and making a plan of action
- Developing good self-care practices, often through modeling your own
- Identifying personal strengths and values
- Accessing career resources or developing job-seeking resources
- Developing relationships in the community
Above all, you can offer an empathetic ear, providing encouragement, respect, and hope to someone who may be struggling with the same mental health stigma, recovery setbacks, or self-doubt you’ve also faced in your journey.
Peer Support Specialist Jobs
Peer support specialists hold positions in a wide range of working environments all over the United States. Though valued in all communities, peer support specialists may be particularly needed in smaller or rural communities (or any area where it’s difficult to access mental health services).
Specialists are commonly employed by:
- Outpatient counseling clinics
- Universities or community colleges
- Hospitals or wellness centers
- Community centers
- Telehealth services
Average income for peer support specialists can vary by state. These aren’t volunteer positions, so you will receive a wage. But since a career as a peer support specialist doesn’t require the same level of education psychologist or counselor career would, these positions aren’t as highly paid. According to PayScale, the average annual salary for a certified peer support specialist in the United States is around $32,000.
Peer Specialist Certification
The requirements and training necessary peer specialist certification vary by state. You can check your state’s specific requirements online with a quick Google search or by using the Doors to Wellbeing website.
Once you’re a certified peer counselor in your state, you can also become certified nationally. Mental Health America has developed a National Certified Peer Specialist (NCPS) credential. This certification aims to help standardize training, improve and standardize pay, and meet the growing demand for mental health care services.
Obtaining this certification involves several steps:
- First, you’ll need to hold an active certification to work as a peer counselor in your state.
- If you haven’t completed at least 40 training hours, you’ll need to have completed a training program approved by Mental Health America.
- You’ll also need to have completed at least 3,000 hours of volunteer or paid peer support.
- Have two letters of recommendation ready for your application. You’ll need one professional recommendation and one recommendation from a supervisor.
- Apply online for your certification. You can find more information about this process on the Mental Health America website. The online application fee is $225.
- Schedule your exam locally and pay the examination fee of $200.
- Study for the exam with the test preparation guide and checklist offered on the Mental Health America website.
Taking continuing education (CE) classes is a necessary step in keeping your certification current. According to NCPS requirements, you’ll need to complete at least 20 CE hours every two years. You can easily purchase individual CE courses on GoodTherapy’s website.
Even if you choose not to pursue the national certification, your state may still require you to complete a certain number of CE hours each year.
Research shows peer support can offer significant benefits, including fewer hospitalizations and better recovery outcomes.
As a peer support specialist, you can support and encourage others, primarily by letting them know you’ve walked the same path. Your encouragement can help others living with mental health concerns have a renewed sense of hope that their situation will also improve.
- Average peer support specialist hourly pay. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Peer_Support_Specialist/Hourly_Rate
- Bouchery, E. E., Barna, M., Babalola, E., Friend, D., Brown, J. D., Blyler, C., & Ireys, H. T. (2018, August 3). The effectiveness of a peer-staffed crisis respite program as an alternative to hospitalization. Psychiatric Services, 69(10), 1069-1074.Retrieved from https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ps.201700451
- How to become a peer support specialist. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/how-become-peer-support-specialist
- Mead, A. (2019, February 6). Peer support specialists care for and connect rural behavioral health clients. The Rural Monitor. Retrieved from https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/rural-monitor/peer-support-specialists
- National certified peer specialist (NCPS) certification—Get certified! (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/national-certified-peer-specialist-ncps-certification-get-certified
- Peer providers. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/workforce/team-members/peer-providers
- Peer specialist database. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.doorstowellbeing.org/peerinfo
- The peer workforce. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/peer-workforce#Supervision
- Silverman, L. (2017, July 11). In Texas, people with mental illness are finding work helping peers. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/07/11/536501069/in-texas-people-with-mental-illness-are-finding-work-helping-peers
- What is a peer? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/what-peer
- What is the role of a peer support specialist? [PDF] (2010). Retrieved from http://www.northernlakescmh.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/NLCMHPeerTrifold2011Final.pdf
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