Peer Specialist Job Description
Peer specialists are mental health professionals who support and assist individuals struggling with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Individuals in this field should be compassionate and have a strong desire to help others reclaim their lives. Most peer specialists are employed with private nonprofits and government organizations, and they usually work under the guidance of a therapist, social worker, or psychiatrist.
Peer Specialist Duties and Responsibilities
The everyday tasks performed by peer specialists vary from organization to organization, but there are some duties the vast majority of peer specialists are expected to carry out. Based on research, most peer specialist perform the following tasks regularly:
Most peer specialists provide emotional and psychological support to individuals suffering from a variety of mental illnesses. They draw upon their own experiences when helping others, and they may maintain contact with clients through phone calls, emails, and home visits.
Peer specialists work with mentally ill individuals, but they are usually not therapists or psychiatrists. A peer specialist must exercise discretion when counseling clients and know when to refer a client to a more experienced medical professional. Referrals to professionals are made when a client poses a threat to themselves or others, or simply needs additional medical help.
Help Clients Set Goals
Individuals with mental illnesses often have difficulty transitioning into mainstream society. Peer specialists help make this transition easier by helping clients craft strategies for coping and achieving their goals.
Educate the Community
Peer specialists have a firsthand understanding of mental illness and its impact. They help clients learn more about their illnesses and how to manage them safely and effectively. Many peer specialists help educate prominent individuals in the community, such as teachers, employers, and members of the clergy.
Many individuals suffering from mental illness do not have access to the healthcare they need. They may also suffer from issues such as homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and legal problems. Peer specialists often head outreach programs to reach individuals who need help.
Peer Specialist Skills and Qualifications
Peer specialists should have a strong knowledge of mental illness and basic counseling techniques. Each organization and state has different licensing and educational requirements, but most peer specialists need at least a high school diploma or GED to enter the profession. Peer specialists with the following skills and qualifications are often sought out by employers:
- Knowledge of basic counseling techniques – peer specialists do not need to be as extensively educated as psychologists or psychiatrists, but they should know basic counseling techniques. They should also know how to handle individuals who are in distress, depressed, psychotic, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Cultural fluency – peer specialists often work with a diverse range of clients from a variety of ethnic groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and religions. For this reason, they should know how to effectively communicate with individuals who may be different from themselves
- Knowledge of public health issues – peer specialists should understand the unique mental health challenges faced by the individuals in their community or state. This may involve conducting demographic research or reading case studies from local hospitals and clinics
- Interpersonal skills – individuals employed in this profession work very closely with others, so they should have excellent verbal communication skills and a high level of empathy. Peer specialists must know how to set boundaries with clients and maintain professionalism at all times
- Organization skills – peer specialists often have a caseload of 10 to 20 clients at once. This means they should know how to maintain detailed records and file them accordingly
Peer Specialist Education and Training
While peer specialists typically do not need a bachelor’s degree to enter the field, most organizations require at least a high school diploma. However, some specialists may need to take a specific number of courses or pass a test to receive certification. Peer specialists with more responsibilities may need to obtain a bachelor’s in psychology or social work, but this is usually not required. Most peer specialists undergo an extensive amount of training to learn the basics of counseling, mental health, and community outreach before they are allowed to work. The overwhelming majority of organizations hiring peer specialists prefer to hire individuals who have experienced the impact of mental illness or substance abuse firsthand.
Peer Specialist Salary and Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies peer specialists as community health educators and workers. The median annual salary for a community health educator or worker is $38,370. Those with earnings in the top 10th percentile gross a yearly salary in excess of $64,500, and those in the lowest 10th percentile earn less than $25,150 annually. Full-time peer specialists employed by prominent organizations and government agencies usually receive additional benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, and sick leave. Some organizations may offer high-performing peer specialists bonuses.
According to the BLS, industry employment for peer specialists is expected to increase by 18 percent through 2026. This is an extremely high rate when compared to the average job growth rate of 7 percent for all occupations. This growth is often attributed to increased awareness and a decreasing stigma toward mental illness and substance abuse.
Are you interesting in learning more about the role of peer specialist? The following resources may be able to help you decide if this career is right for you:
Mental Health America – the MHA website is an excellent resource for anyone considering a career as a peer specialist. It provides in-depth information about peer counseling, as well as general information about mental illness and substance abuse. The organization even offers a certification program that meets the needs of most private companies and nonprofits
Recovery Coaching: A Guide to Coaching People in Recovery from Addictions – written by Melissa Killeen, this book explores the finer nuances of substance abuse and its roots. It contains startling statistics (such as 80 percent of people who complete a substance abuse program will relapse) and helps the reader understand the humanity behind them. It is simply a must-read for anyone considering work as a recovery coach or peer specialist
The Peer Specialist’s Pocket Resource for Mental Health and Substance Use Services – in this useful pocket manual, Charles Drebbing, PhD, provides readers with a quick yet detailed overview of common peer specialist practices and approaches. The book is a readable reference tool for peer specialists who work one-on-one and in groups with those suffering from mental illness and addiction
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