By Sheilah Powell

As a Peer Recovery Support Professional, one question I get asked on the regular is “what does a peer do? Are you like a sponsor?” The truth is, many people still don’t understand what a Peer Support Specialist or Recovery Coach does. Here is a basic crash course in Peer Support.

First, I think peer support is powerful – and I wish that I had access to a peer support professional when I was entering recovery. I think that would have changed the trajectory of my life.

Overall, peer support includes a range of activities between two individuals that promotes connection, trust and inspires hope. When I am coaching someone, I often list some ways I can support a person are listening to someone vent about a problem they are having, celebrating a recovery milestone, helping a person apply for graduate school, creating goals to make changes in a person’s life, helping someone find their polling place to vote, or helping someone navigate the Department of Motor Vehicles. The list goes on and on.

At the heart of peer support are complete acceptance and radical compassion for others trying to navigate their recovery and wellness. Peer support offers to a person a level of validation not found in many other professional relationships. Additionally, there is a much less power differential between a peer support professional and a person than that of a clinician, sponsor, or member of the clergy. By sharing their own lived experience, peer support professionals help people to develop their own goals, create strategies for self-empowerment, and take concrete steps toward building fulfilling, self-determined lives for themselves.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), peer support workers engage in a wide range of activities including advocating for people in recovery, sharing resources and building skills, building community and relationships, leading recovery groups, and mentoring and setting goals. Peers can also provide services and/or training, supervise other peer workers, or administer programs or agencies.

Thanks to individuals like researcher and recovery historian Bill White, the history of peer support is widely documented. “There is a long and rich history of recovery mutual aid societies, peer-based recovery support groups, and the use of recovered/recovering people in paid service roles from which lessons can be drawn.”

Today, the recovery support industry is thriving and there are currently Peer Recovery Support/Recovery Coaches in hospital emergency departments, insurance companies, recovery centers, non-profits, and technology companies.

Most recently, history was made when the Fiscal Year 2022 budget included – for the first time – a 10% set aside for recovery support services. The money set aside for recovery support services will create a more robust recovery-oriented system of care in this country, which in turn will save lives.

As we move into the future of peer support, it is this blogger’s opinion that we must focus more on peer services that directly understand and support marginalized folks like those in the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities. Everyone deserves the right to be supported in a way that works best for them, and understood for exactly who they are and what they have been through.

For more information on the history of peer support, check out the writings of Bill White. For more information on LGBTQIA+ resources, check out PFLAG. For more information on BIPOC wellness support, check out Melanin and Mental Health or Well for Culture. There are just a few examples of services and support out there.