In Defense of Peer Specialists

by Joseph M. Bowers

There seems to be a fair amount of controversy about the effectiveness of peer specialists. A brief search of the literature fails to reveal overwhelming evidence one way or the other. I think a lot of the trouble is because the peer specialist is a fairly new position and his role has not been clearly enough defined.

I have taken the classroom training for being a peer specialist and volunteer at a facility run day to day by paid peer specialists. At this facility we do not treat people with mental illnesses. We are adamant in stressing that ours is not a treatment facility. What we do there is support people with mental illnesses. We listen to them nonjudgementally. We help them connect with available services, fill out forms, provide internet access and free coffee. We have support groups and regular activities like art group and cooking group. We are pro medication and pro treatment program. We get referrals from all the major professional service providers in town when deemed appropriate because we have demonstrated value under the right circumstances. We are paid by district court to support people in the judicial system in danger of losing their children because of mental illnesses and /or substance abuse. We spend a couple hours each week in outreach to homeless people in our communities warming shelter looking for ways to help those with mental illnesses and substance issues. We rent out a room to an individual recently released from the state hospital.

We are not and don’t claim nor try to be substitutes for professionals. We work with professionals and have professionals on our board of directors. Our current director is a retired forensic psychiatrist from the state hospital in our town.

We have some advantages over professionals. We are equals with our clients. It is not a professional-patient relationship. Our clients more readily accept that we get it having experienced much of what they are experiencing. During my stays in mental hospitals many conversations among us started: “I would never tell my doctor this but…Some things can’t be related to someone in authority without unwanted consequences but need to be talked about.

We provide hope. I recently had a couple of opportunities to talk about our organization with Dianne Primavera when she was campaigning for her current position as Lieutenant Governor of Colorado. She is a cancer survivor and commented that when she got her diagnosis the people she most wanted to talk to were cancer survivors. We can tell suffering people what has worked for us. We do empathize that we are not recovered. We are in recovery. Staying there takes work.

There is a terrible shortage of everything needed by our mentally ill population. To a limited extent we can fill in some of the gap. Our current popularity to some degree stems from the severe shortage of trained professionals.

I think when the studies have been done they will show better outcomes for people who have worked with peers and professionals than those who have worked only with one or the other.




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