By Dan Galvin, MSW, CRPA, Director for Peer Services and Integration
Peer support is a non-clinical approach to helping individuals navigate the process of recovery. Peer support specialists are individuals with lived experience who have successfully achieved a stable recovery. They use their unique perspectives and experiences—along with professional training—to connect with and support others who are on the same journey.
You’ve been struggling for so long now. You feel lost, alone, hopeless. You feel like something inside of you is broken; you’re not sure what, exactly, but you are starting to doubt that whatever it is can ever be fixed. You know your family and friends care, and their suggestions make sense on the surface: “Get some sunshine,” “start exercising,” “find a new hobby,” “go to church,” “stop drinking,” “just put down the drugs.” But it feels like they don’t really understand what you’re going through; after all, how could they? It feels like there is something uniquely wrong with you: “Why can’t I live and enjoy life like these other people can?”
Someone suggests you try a support group or get coffee with a family friend who has had similar struggles as you. You’re skeptical that it will help, but something compels you to give it a shot.
You hear other people share their stories, and in those stories, you hear tiny pieces of your own story. You can identify with the things these people are sharing. They might not have had the exact same experiences as you, but you can tell they have felt how you feel now. You look at them, and they seem healthy. They even seem happy. In that moment, through that process of identification, you feel something you haven’t felt in a long time—something you’d lost long ago. You feel hope.
Tiny Spark of Hope
For many of us who have struggled with mental health or substance use, that tiny spark of hope sets us on the path of recovery. Being around people who have felt how we felt, hearing their stories, sharing our own story, and sharing the insights we have gleaned through our hard-won experience finally showed us that we are not alone, that we are not broken in some uniquely unfixable way, that there is hope for us, and that there are people who are willing to walk the road to healing alongside us.
More than anything else, I think that ability to instill hope and connection through sharing lived experiences is what makes Spectrum’s Peer Support Specialists so effective in improving the quality of life of the individuals we serve. We can say to someone who is struggling, “I’ve felt similar to how you’re feeling right now, I know you can get through this, and I’m going to be right here next to you helping you on your journey.” Our peers then model throughout the helping relationship aspects of healthy recovery—things like self-care, wellness, confidence, social skills, and healthy boundary setting.
Data says: Peer Support Works
Data from a litany of studies highlights what I suspect any of us who have worked alongside Peer Support Specialists already knows: peer support works. Research shows that peer support can increase treatment retention, increase satisfaction with the treatment process, improve relationships with treatment providers, improve access to social supports, reduce substance use, reduce re-hospitalization rates, and decrease criminal justice involvement.
I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate each of our Peers for having the courage to embark on his or her own recovery journey and the compassion to use those experiences to help others find recovery.
See SAMHSA for more information about clinical research highlighting the effectiveness of peer support: https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/programs_campaigns/brss_tacs/peers-supporting-recovery-substance-use-disorders-2017.pdf