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Peer Specialists: What’s In a Name?

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Since November 2017, I have been a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS). Over the years, while working in the Mental Health Field, I have taken several online courses and written articles on changing ideas and philosophies of peer support.

From my perspective, I believe Peer Specialists should get more respect and gratitude. Academics should study and write on ‘peer studies’ at the university level. Once the discourse of peer work reaches the University level, the profession might be more widely understood and available as a career.   

Prejudicial and worldwide opinion

Peer Specialists around the globe are second-hand counselors and the bottom rung careers in mental health. Relegated to positions of lower status and lower salaries, peers perform the same responsibilities, duties, and tasks as their higher-paid counterparts.

As a Peer Specialist, I am concerned about the ever-changing name of the profession. Some days, it is Peer Specialists. Other days, the term is Peer Supporter. Sometimes, a combination of Peer Support Specialists enters the mental health lexicon. 

Contesting the term ‘Peer Specialist.’ 

A few years ago, the title Peer Counselor described peer work. But, Peer Counselor and Mental Health Counselor was not only a duplicate term but a confusing role and responsibility issue for interdisciplinary teams with multiple professional services. People butted heads, and ultimately, the terms shifted again and again until settling on Peer Specialist.

Peer Specialists are professionals, but their credentialing and certification pass through the NYS Peer Specialist Certification Board, not the NYS Office of Professions like social workers, nurses, and psychiatrists.

Many Peers have several years of lived experience with mental health. In addition, many peers have extensive training in peer support methods. 

Diverse Training and Education

My friend has a background in counseling and therapy. I figured I would pick his brain. He observed that Peer Specialists use methods similar to mental health counselors. Also, he stated that a couple of these are Client-Centered and use techniques similar to Motivational Interviewing

Many peer specialists borrow components and forms of therapy or counseling. So maybe we need to call Peer Specialists, Peer Counselors. A famous baseball expression, “Call them as we see them,” reflects some people’s opinion on identifying Peer Specialists.

They were developed in the 1940s by Psychologist and author Carl RogersClient-Centered Therapy or Person-Centered Therapy. These approaches are in line with forms of talk therapy. 

In keeping with this approach, peers act as equal partners in the clinical process. So, despite having no formalized clinical training or clinical responsibility to their clients, peers have a hand in clinical work, if only indirectly, but most certainly, involved. In this sense, the peer does clinical labor but doesn’t direct the ‘ship,’ process, or practice with their clients.

Peers Offer Concrete Solutions 

Therapy should be as non-directive as possible. Indeed, there will be times when a therapist needs to change the course of treatment, but generally, therapists take their cues from their clients and where they are at in their health. Carl Rogers believes people are the best expert on our lives and experiences. This belief that people are the best experts permits clients to fulfill their potential by relying on their strengths to change. In this sense, Rogers would have probably envisioned peer work to augment therapy and aid in the clinical process truly.

Motivational Interviewing is a counseling method. Developed by two Psychologists, William R Miller and Stephen Rollnick, in the 1980s and 1990s, motivational interviewing involves enhancing a person’s motivation to change using four guiding principles. 

These are expressed by the acronym RULE: 

                                  Resist the Righting Reflex

                                  Understanding the Person’s Motivations

                                  Listen with Compassion 

                                  Empower the Person.         

Both therapists, counselors, and Peer Specialists use these techniques to assist their clients. Still, mental health seems to have forgotten the term Peer Counselor. However, each profession comes from a different vantage point and point of reference. Therapists use the technique to drive the treatment forward and motivate their clients to keep going. In this sense, the therapist is a cheerleader encouraging clients to take an interest in therapy and adhere/believe in the process.

Peer Specialists use methods differently. Drawing on lived experience and first-hand knowledge, Peer Specialists don’t counsel others but offer insight based on their recovery and how healing has worked for them. Counselors provide mental health, emotional support, and verbal reassurance with their insights and offer psychoeducation based on the issue.

The preferred terminology is Peer Specialist. I have seen “peer counseling” used in psychiatric rehabilitation textbooks. Mary Ellen Copeland, author of “Wellness Recovery Action Plan,” continues to use the term “peer counseling” in her well-known WRAP and her other manuals. Even camp counselors use this term. Lawyers, too! And many, many others! So, why has mental health landed the assignment Peer Specialists? 

Since I am a Peer Specialist, I expect longevity in the Peer Specialist profession. My hope is this occupation continues to grow. To truly grow without bound and become more solvent in the mental health field, there must be full recognition by leaders of the Department of Labor and Office of Professions. Full credit begins with unifying the terminology, which is now Peer Specialist. 

For over twenty-five years, I have worked in the Mental Health Field. Many of the names have changed several times. I am confident the terms will keep changing more in the future. It’s not the title that matters most. What matters most is the work accomplished. Peer work is precious to the world. Whatever the name used.

See you in the NewsBlogs and Newsletters.

About the Author

Howard Diamond CPS (Certified Peer Specialist)

Howard Diamond, CPS (Certified Peer Specialist) is a hardworking Editorial Board Member and eager contributor to Mental Health Affairs. He has worked in various settings all over Long Island and New York State where he resides. His articles are layered with incredible profound insights into his health and state of being, which resonate with his audience do deeply struggling with their mental health and connection to the bigger world. Howard has a dedicated following of readers and he also writes for other websites on his lived experience and ongoing thoughts on mental health. We are happy to have him working with the site and being so gracious with his time, energy, and dedication to our site.
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