An explanation of what it means to be a peer from a PEERS coordinator

By Heather Riemer

What is a peer in the world of mental health? In general terms, a peer is a person whom we identify with in some capacity, whether it’s through sexual orientation, race, or age. In mental and behavioral health, peer has a slightly different meaning.

A peer is someone who has lived experiences having mental health challenges. Someone who has shared the experience of living with a psychiatric disability and/or addiction. But they are so much more than that. 

The Start of the Peer Support Movement

First, a little history. The concept of peer support began in the 1970s when the self-help movement started. Survivors of the radical and harmful treatment in the psychiatric hospitals came together to support each other in a way only they could truly understand. They helped each other heal. This was the birth of peer support as we know it. There are many great examples of peer workers who began advocating during that time. The first peer supporters became a strong force for change in the behavioral health care system, with many others following suit.

These peers understood there is so much more to recovery than medication and symptom management. Peer support is considered very beneficial in many regards it is an evidence-based practice that has been deemed extremely helpful.

The role of peer supporter is a unique and essential element of recovery-oriented mental health and substance abuse systems. Peers are consumers of mental health and substance abuse programs who have achieved significant recovery and are able to assist others on their recovery journey. 

Peer Support in Practice

In behavioral health, a peer is slightly different. In a narrow context, a person who has a psychiatric issue may be a peer. But in reality, people can be a bit picky about who they rely on for peer support. People want somebody they can trust and who has a similar story to their own. These are important factors when choosing a peer supporter.                                                                                                                                                                                    

Peers take on a number of responsibilities. In mental health, “peers can offer their experience living with mental health challenges along with offering emotional support, share knowledge, teach skills, provide practical assistance and connect people with resources opportunity communities of support and other people” (Mead,2003, Solomon 2004) In behavioral health, peers offer their unique lived experience dealing with mental health problems to provide support focused on advocacy, education, mentoring and motivation.

Examples of Peer Support in Society

Peer supporters make up a dynamic group that continues to transform lives and systems across the country. We are a growing workforce in the United States with more and more behavioral health organizations appreciating what we do. 

There are peer specialists now working in private practice as well as community organizations. We are working in prisons, doing re-entry. Peers work on crisis response teams, in homeless shelters, and at county behavioral health offices. Alameda County has a consumer/peer team within the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services working to improve the lives of consumers.  It is one of a kind.

There is also a wonderful peer specialist training program called Bestnow! I think we are light years ahead in this county as far as peer support goes. Also with the passing of the new peer certification law SB803 last year, peers will be certified and able to help people all over the state. 

Peer Support at PEERS

Here at PEERS, we offer peer support in many ways. We facilitate education and support groups by offering WRAP workshops which are helpful in creating life plans for one’s future. We also have peers working to support people through our other groups such as Buried Treasures or TAY Leadership Club, Special Messages. Outside of our regular groups, we lead different types of workshops at related agencies and conferences. We offer what we can to enrich our community in the best way possible. That is what the “peers” at PEERS do.

Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services is a unique agency in the way that most of our staff is made up of peers with lived experience or who are family members. Our goal is to support people in the best ways possible in the recovery model. Many of the peers working here have additional certifications that demonstrate their skills and knowledge which they use along with their lived experience and ability to connect with consumers. They work hard to be professional along with personal.

I have been a peer supporter for several years now and it is something I do from my heart. I help others make connections and figure out their path to recovery in the right way for them. It is much more than just a job for me, it is a way of living. And I feel lucky to be doing this. You might say peers are the missing piece in the puzzle of behavioral health care. At least I like to look at it that way. We help complete the picture in so many different ways.