A peer specialist is a person with personal experience in recovery from addiction or a mental health disorder who provides mentoring to people in treatment. This person acts but as a participant in the patient's therapy along with other trained care providers. Some services may only be available through peer to peer support, from someone who understands on a personal level what the patient is experiencing. Counselors and other care providers with experience in this area may need to maintain professional distance and not discuss their past, but this limitation is not in place for peer specialists.
The idea of using people who are further along in their recovery as mentors originated in addiction therapy. Many approaches to treatment for alcohol and drug abuse stress the role of a mentor, buddy, or sponsor who plays the role of peer specialist. This individual is available to offer counseling to the subject throughout recovery. Subjects can get help with the recommended steps and activities associated with the organization, as well as having a friendly ear available when they are struggling.
Mentoring can also be helpful in mental health counseling, which has a long history of using group therapy to encourage patients to help each other. A peer specialist in this context may have the same mental health condition, but has learned how to manage and control it through therapy, medications, and other means. Newly diagnosed patients or those with poorly controlled mental illness can meet with the peer specialist to talk about options and learn more about the choices that may be available to them.
Training programs for peer specialists are available through a number of organizations. These provide advice on mentoring, which can include working on boundaries with mentees for safety and well being, as well as any legal requirements. Certified peer specialists can list themselves as available for counseling and assistance. Patients may connect with them through the sponsorship of a treatment program, or on their own if they are hesitant about seeking treatment and want more information.
Some training programs are very formal and extensive, to prepare peer specialists for full time work in this field. Others may be less formal, and focus on providing part time volunteers with the basic information they need to offer appropriate counseling and assistance. People interested in peer specialist opportunities can talk to their therapists, doctors, or local mentoring programs to find out if spaces are available and learn more about the requirements for participants.