Learn about the foundation and essential core competencies required by a range of peer workers within behavioral health services.
What Is a Peer Support Worker?
The role of the peer support worker has been defined as one who offers help, based on the shared understanding, respect, and mutual empowerment between people in similar situations. Peer support has been described as a system of giving and receiving help based on key principles that include shared responsibility, and mutual agreement of what is helpful. Peer support workers engage in a wide range of activities, including advocacy, linkage to resources, sharing of their experience, community and relationship building, group facilitation, skill building, mentoring, goal setting, and more. They may also plan and develop groups, services or activities, supervise other peer workers, provide training, gather information on resources, administer programs or agencies, educate the public and policymakers, and work to raise awareness.
The development of additional core competencies may be needed to guide the provision of peer support services to specific groups who also share common experiences, such as family members. The shared experience of being in recovery from a mental health and/or substance use condition or being a family member is the foundation on which the peer recovery support relationship is built in the behavioral health arena.
What Is Recovery
SAMHSA developed the following working definition of recovery by engaging key stakeholders in the mental health consumer and substance use disorder recovery communities:
Recovery is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.
This definition does not describe recovery as an end state, but rather as a process. Complete symptom remission is neither a prerequisite of recovery nor a necessary outcome of the process. According to SAMHSA, recovery can have many pathways that may include professional clinical treatment; use of medications; support from families and in schools; faith-based approaches; peer support; and other approaches. SAMHSA has identified four major dimensions that support a life in recovery:
- Health — Learning to overcome, manage, or more successfully live with symptoms and making healthy choices that support one’s physical and emotional wellbeing
- Home — A stable and safe place to live
- Purpose — Meaningful daily activities, such as a job, school, volunteer work, or creative endeavors; increased ability to lead a self-directed life; and meaningful engagement in society
- Community — Relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope
Peer workers help people in all of these dimensions.
What Are Core Competencies?
Core competencies are the capacity to easily perform a role or function. They are often described as clusters of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes a person needs to have in order to successfully perform a role or job. Training, mentoring, and supervision can help people develop the competencies needed to perform a role or job. This will be the first integrated guidance on competencies for peer workers with mental health and substance use experience.
Why Do We Need to Identify Core Competencies for Peer Workers?
Peer workers and peer recovery support services have become increasingly central to people’s efforts to live with or recover from mental and/or substance use disorders. Community-based organizations led by people who have experienced mental health conditions and/or who are in recovery from substance use disorders are playing a growing role in helping people find recovery in the community. Both the mental health consumer and the substance use disorder recovery communities have recognized the need for core competencies and both communities actively participated in the development of these peer recovery support worker competencies.
Potential Uses of Core Competencies
Core competencies have the potential to guide service delivery and promote best practices in peer support. They can be used to inform peer training programs, assist in developing standards for certification, and inform job descriptions. Supervisors will be able to use the competencies to appraise peer workers’ job performance and peers will be able to assess their own work performance and set goals for continued development.
Core competencies are not intended to create a barrier for people wishing to enter the peer workforce. Rather they are intended to provide guidance for the development of initial and on-going training designed to support peer workers’ entry into this important work and continued skill development.
Core Competencies, Principles and Values
Core competencies for peer workers reflect certain foundation principles identified by members of the mental health consumer and substance use disorder recovery communities. These are:
Recovery-oriented: Peer workers hold out hope to those they serve, partnering with them to envision and achieve a meaningful and purposeful life. Peer workers help those they serve identify and build on strengths and empower them to choose for themselves, recognizing that there are multiple pathways to recovery.
Person-centered: Peer recovery support services are always directed by the person participating in services. Peer recovery support is personalized to align with the specific hopes, goals, and preferences of the individual served and to respond to specific needs the individuals has identified to the peer worker.
Voluntary: Peer workers are partners or consultants to those they serve. They do not dictate the types of services provided or the elements of recovery plans that will guide their work with peers. Participation in peer recovery support services is always contingent on peer choice.
Relationship-focused: The relationship between the peer worker and the peer is the foundation on which peer recovery support services and support are provided. The relationship between the peer worker and peer is respectful, trusting, empathetic, collaborative, and mutual.
Trauma-informed: Peer recovery support utilizes a strength-based framework that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety and creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.