Peer Support 101: How to Become a Peer Support Specialist

Peer support specialist goes over documents with a clientMany 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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

  1. Average peer support specialist hourly pay. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Peer_Support_Specialist/Hourly_Rate
  2. 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
  3. How to become a peer support specialist. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/how-become-peer-support-specialist
  4. 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
  5. National certified peer specialist (NCPS) certification—Get certified! (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/national-certified-peer-specialist-ncps-certification-get-certified
  6. Peer providers. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/workforce/team-members/peer-providers
  7. Peer specialist database. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.doorstowellbeing.org/peerinfo
  8. The peer workforce. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/peer-workforce#Supervision
  9. 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
  10. What is a peer? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/what-peer
  11. 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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • allen

    allen

    September 6th, 2019 at 11:15 AM

    i want to do this

  • Cassandra

    Cassandra

    December 7th, 2019 at 8:51 AM

    What do I need to do first to do this?

  • Alexis

    Alexis

    February 4th, 2020 at 4:29 PM

    I want to get into this. I wonder where I can go to find the classes/training to become CPS, and do the 40 hours.

  • William

    William

    April 2nd, 2020 at 2:42 PM

    Where do I go to start my training if I live in atl ga

  • Rob

    Rob

    June 8th, 2020 at 11:52 AM

    Most agencies will pay for your certification, so I recommend looking for a PSS position. Each agency’s PSS requirements could be different, so find out what they require. Most will probably just require a 40-hour PSS course, but not all agencies accept the same courses (due to grant funding, insurance, stuff like that). I started doing Peer work before completing my training, and my employer paid for my course. Once certified, I was able to bill for services (that’s how the agencies earn money from Peers, Case Managers, Therapists, etc). Prepare yourself for a significantly lower wage than your coworkers at other positions. Peers are usually the lowest paid by far. The work can be triggering, thankless, and emotionally exhausting, but you’ll be helping people who don’t have anyone else supporting them. And you can help them find their voice.

  • jordan

    jordan

    June 16th, 2020 at 7:41 AM

    If there is anything in this world I can amount to I hope it is this position. I myself struggle with depression everyday anxiety everyday. I hope as I continue to recover I can do this position. I would like to do this to help people struggling with mental health positions in need.

  • Kayode

    Kayode

    September 10th, 2020 at 6:44 AM

    Hi, im in UK so dont know if most of the development advice relates since this seems to be for USA
    can you provide any help

  • Luan

    Luan

    October 13th, 2020 at 9:18 AM

    Can you please help me find out where and how to take the initial steps to become a peer support specialist. Such as community college etc. I have years of dual diagnois recovery. Peer support specialist sounds very exciting. Thank You

  • Kristie

    Kristie

    November 27th, 2020 at 4:59 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this. i have learned alot by reading only this. Thank you for educating me more on my journey.

  • Kelli

    Kelli

    January 16th, 2021 at 3:27 PM

    I am very interested in becoming a peer specialist. My son passed away 11 years ago from an accidental drug overdose. I would like to understand it better and help others not lose their life like my son did. I live in Idaho Falls, Idaho. How do I go about receiving this training? And getting a job doing this?

  • Kelli

    Kelli

    January 16th, 2021 at 3:33 PM

    I want to find the training and work with those who need encouragement and help them find the right help they need.

  • Robin

    Robin

    May 4th, 2021 at 10:45 AM

    For anyone looking at online peer counselor training options: I know of an online peer counselor/peer support training program developed by a PhD and former professor, which includes 15 modules of in-depth counseling skills. It’s being used in work with unhoused young adults (transition age youth). The licensed mental health providers at the agency will do the fieldwork supervision and mentoring of peer counselor candidates. Perhaps you can find someone at an organization to supervise your fieldwork, which may lead to a well-paying job.

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    May 6th, 2021 at 5:53 PM

    Could i receive the information for the online option you mentioned from a phD prof?

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