Certified Peer Specialists are Changing the Face of the Mental Health System


As the nation’s mental health system undergoes enormous changes, from transition to a recovery and community inclusion model, to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (to name just a few), the use of Certified Peer Specialists (CPS) has become commonplace.

“A CPS is a person who has experienced a mental health or substance abuse disorder and is far enough along in their recovery journey to be able to be helping others on their journeys,” explains Steve Harrington, Executive Director, International Association of Peer Supporters. “It is incredibly rewarding to do this work. Not only are you helping others, but this work helps people on their own recovery journey.”

“The single largest employer is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA),” he notes. But the field is expanding, thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act. “The doors have been flung open. Part of the reason is because people are finding that Peer Specialists provide power and effective treatment in the lived experience, and they’re cost effective. They’re saving millions of dollars… and saving lives, too.”

Harrington notes that CPS’s are being utilized in Veterans’ Hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, in prisons or with the police, and in a variety of different positions. “In Winston-Salem, NC, the local library hires peer specialists!” he says. “Due to the number of homeless people using the place, Peer Specialists help them connect with community resources.”

Harrington explained that 35 states have, in one form or another, drawn down Medicaid reimbursement for the important work of Certified Peer Specialists. Typically there is a requirement that “peers” initially receive specialized training that meets a set of identified competencies that is endorsed by the state. Additionally, peers must complete annual continuing education to maintain the Peer Specialist certification.

Ongoing training is an essential component for persons interested in transitioning into the Certified Peer Specialist role. The College of Recovery and Community Inclusion (CRCI) courses, developed by Temple University and DirectCourse, have been created specifically to help direct service mental health practitioners, including peer specialists, deliver competent and compassionate services that promote recovery, empowerment, and community inclusion.

Providing peer support is about creating meaningful and powerful relationships to people who need it, Harrington explains. “It comes from the heart. Peer Specialists don’t do things for people, they show people how they can do things for themselves. The rewards are tremendous.”

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