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Baren Berg was leading a group therapy session when a veteran of the Vietnam conflict discussed, for the first time, trauma that he’d experienced decades earlier. “The only reason he opened up was because of my presence,” says Baren, a Marine combat veteran in recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) himself. “He trusted me.”
Trust gained through similar experiences is at the core of Baren’s work as a peer support specialist. He helps fellow veterans transition from the battlefield back into society. Living with PTSD means that Baren can relate to his peers, like the Vietnam veteran, as they overcome their own challenges.
Peer support specialists are mental health workers who have had experience with a psychiatric disorder—such as PTSD, depression, or addiction—and have been trained to counsel or assist others with that condition. Familiar with the disorder themselves, these specialists act as role models for clients facing similar difficulties.
On clients’ first visit, a peer support specialist talks to them to assess their needs: what they struggle with and what they want to accomplish. The specialist then uses that information to help his or her clients set goals. These goals may include finding stable housing or becoming more independent in daily activities.
Next, the peer support specialist schedules sessions to discuss strategies for achieving those goals. These strategies form a support plan, which varies with the client and may include group counseling, employment assistance, or peer-to-peer mentoring. “If they’re agoraphobic, you help them go out into society,” says Baren. “If they have health problems, you accompany them to their doctor.”
Peer support specialists offer encouragement throughout clients’ recovery. How long specialists work with each client depends on a number of variables, such as how complex the client’s challenges are and the rate of progress toward reaching his or her goals. Baren says that he typically works with a client for at least 8 weeks. Specialists may have a caseload of 10 to 20 clients at a time, as participants in either group or one-on-one sessions.
Communication, interpersonal, and active-listening skills are important in providing peer support. And empathy gained from a shared disorder helps specialists build a rapport with clients. Through their own recovery, specialists who have managed the disorder become a role model for their clients.
Although being empathic is essential, it has limits. “You’re reliving traumatic experiences with your clients, and it’s important to know the boundaries,” says Baren. “Otherwise, you can become emotionally drained.”
There are no specific requirements for becoming a peer support specialist. But these workers typically need at least a high school diploma or its equivalent, a history of a mental health disorder that they are comfortable discussing, and certification from a peer support specialist program that includes experiential training.
Certification is available through state agencies and support organizations, such as those focusing on mental health or recovery from addiction. Credential requirements vary but may include having paid or volunteer experience in peer support services, completing an approved training program, and receiving a passing score on a written exam.
Baren has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in organizational leadership, and certification as a peer support specialist. While working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Baren noticed a gap between the VA and peer support communities. He put his education to work by starting a business that provides counseling services to veterans. “As a peer support specialist,” he says, “you are able to use your disability as a source of strength.”
Peer support specialists may work part time. They may travel to serve their clients at primary care offices, emergency rooms, inpatient facilities, and recovery centers, or they may communicate with clients over the phone or online. And they may be part of a support team of counselors that also includes psychologists and social workers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data specifically on peer support specialists. Instead, it counts them among community health workers, of which 51,900 were employed in May 2016. The median annual wage for these workers was $37,330 in May 2016, about the same as the median annual wage of $37,040 for all workers.
As a peer support specialist, Baren feels gratified about improving the lives of others. “Being a positive influence in the world is very meaningful,” he says. “It’s not about the life you live; it’s about the legacy you leave behind.”
Allen Chen, "Peer support specialist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2017.