Acknowledging National Recovery Month
National Recovery Month occurs every September. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) launched National Recovery Month in 1989 to celebrate recovery from mental health and substance use disorders. Events throughout the month celebrate the strong recovery community in the United States and highlight evidence-based practices to support long-term recovery. This year’s theme is “Hope is Real. Recovery is Real.”
We’d like to celebrate peer recovery support specialists during this year’s National Recovery Month and highlight ways to support their expanding workforce. Evidence to support the crucial role of peer recovery support specialists working with people with substance use disorder (SUD) at different stages of active use and recovery is growing.
SAMHSA has demonstrated a commitment to supporting the work of peer recovery support specialists through various publications. As a follow-up to the Core Competencies for Peer Workers in Behavioral Health Services released in 2015, SAMHSA released the National Model Standards for Peer Support Certification in July 2023.
What Do We Know About Peer Recovery Support Specialists?
Peer recovery support specialists have a long history of providing services in health care and other community settings with a mission to promote access to needed services and treatment opportunities. SUD-specific peer services groups grew from mutual aid programs developed in the mid-1800s and have now become leading voices for more inclusive and empowering and less stigmatizing and harmful SUD services and treatment options.
Today, peer recovery support specialists are certified professionals in long-term recovery from alcohol or other drug use. By using their stories and lived experience of substance use, peer recovery support specialists connect with and provide encouragement and hope to people with alcohol and other substance use disorders across all stages of change. They work in a variety of settings, and their roles and responsibilities may differ depending on the setting needs and structure. Across settings, they serve as allies and advocates, model behavior, offer honest and compassionate decision-making support, and help navigate resources and systems.
What Services Do Peer Recovery Support Specialists Provide in Various Settings?
Research continues to emerge that describes the role and impact of peer recovery support specialists in various settings, including treatment and recovery agencies, jails and prisons, hospitals and emergency departments, and community-based outreach.
Treatment and Recovery Agencies
In treatment and recovery agencies, peer recovery support specialists can support nonclinical client needs that can help clients stay motivated and engaged and increase retention in services. They may help clients navigate systems to address basic needs (e.g., sign up for SNAP benefits) and other health needs (e.g., make appointment with a primary care provider) and connect to others in recovery (e.g., attend mutual aid groups together).
Research focused on peer recovery support specialists in these settings has demonstrated changes in substance use and other outcomes, including increased abstinence, increased recovery capital, increased housing stability, reduced anxiety and decreased criminal charges.
Jails and Prisons
In jails and prisons, peer recovery support specialists support community reentry and must align with community corrections requirements. After release from incarceration, people who used drugs have increased risk of overdose and need to navigate lives and responsibilities that have changed during their incarceration. Peer recovery support specialists with lived experience of incarceration can help people navigate these changes. They are available for transportation to appointments, housing transitions and support to meet community reentry goals and needs (e.g., get ID or driver’s license, sign up for health insurance, apply for jobs).
Research focused on peer recovery support specialists in these settings has demonstrated decreased substance use and recidivism and increased social connectedness.
Hospitals and Emergency Departments
In hospitals and emergency departments, peer recovery support specialists can serve as a bridge to effective communication and trust between health care providers and people with SUD. Hospitals and emergency departments are crucial settings to connect people to medications for opioid use disorder and other SUD treatment, harm reduction and social services. Peer recovery support specialists can introduce people to those opportunities and help them navigate next steps.
Research focused on peer recovery support specialists in these settings has demonstrated increased retention in postdischarge treatment services and trust in the health care system.
In community-based outreach, peer recovery support specialists serve people outside the context of traditional treatment, recovery and health care settings. They use harm reduction and person-centered strategies to build connections and support strategies to prevent overdose and other drug-related harms. They may work at or with syringe service programs and other local service organizations to identify street outreach areas and people in need of services and support. Services include overdose education, naloxone and test strip distribution, sterile syringe distribution, infectious disease testing and linkages to care.
Research focused on peer recovery support specialists in these settings has demonstrated increased sense of psychological and physical safety and increased access and engagement with hepatitis C treatment.
How Can We Support the Peer Recovery Support Specialist Workforce?
As the peer recovery support specialist role and workforce continues to expand, intentional and supportive approaches should be considered, including:
- Continue to support comprehensive training and certification standards led by people with lived experience and peer-delivered services leaders. Robust and accessible trainings need to be regularly available to build competencies. Rigid background checks, which disproportionately impact communities of color, should be revised, and include more nuanced look-back timelines and reviews.
- Support career development opportunities and benefits. Organizations need to establish structures to support the peer recovery support specialist workforce, including resources for self-care and burnout support, adequate recovery-centered supervision, and trainings for other staff about the role and scope of a peer recovery support specialist. To improve retention, increased access to full-time work that includes appropriate compensation, benefits and opportunities for growth is crucial.
Find out more about peer recovery support specialists — including history, training, certification, roles and impact — as well as recommendations for further implementation and research, in this narrative review.
Comagine Health collaborates with peer recovery support specialists to study the impact of their work. Visit our Research and Evaluation page to learn more.