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National Council workshop wrap-up: Approaches to peer support

March 16, 2010
by Lindsay Barba
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One of the most popular trends gaining ground in the behavioral healthare field today is the hiring of peers as employees. Whether they are integrated into facilities among clinical staff or leading peer-run organizations, peers have proven to be successful and cost-effective sources of care.

However, the processes of hiring, managing, and retaining peers as staff members carry certain challenges that many providers aren't prepared for. Led by Gail Hutchings of Behavioral Health Policy Collaborative, the workshop "Approaches to Peer Support" addressed these challenges and offered solutions for providers on the second day of the National Council's 40th Annual Conference.

First, Steve Miccio of PEOPLe, Inc., a peer-run organization that provides non-traditional services such as in-home companions and a hospital diversion house, warned attendees of the responsibility that peer-run organizations carry. Though their services build up integrity that provides unrivaled support, that integrity "can be broken so easily." Because of this, Miccio says it's important to hire peers that have been strong in their recovery for about one year and have an obvious passion for the task at hand.

Miccio's colleague, Richard Pulice, PhD, MPH, CPH, then addressed the importance of achieving legislative mandates for support. Referencing the Dutch system, which requires providers to have peers on staff, Pulice indicated that such mandates would help to ensure funding and general acceptance for peer services by behavioral health professionals.

Finally, National Council's 2009 Rookie of the Year Vanessa Sweeney, MPH, CHES, outlined how to effectively manage and supervise peer employees in a clinical setting. Sweeney began by stressing the importance of an effective job description, which should:

- Include the exact percentage of time that should be spent on each duty;
- Be readily available to other non-peer staff members; and
- Grow along with the evolution of the program.

Sweeney told attendees that supervisors tasked with managing peers should be prepared to provide extra guidance, as these employees may have never worked in a professional setting before. Supervisors should also be prepared to advocate for peer employees against the rest of the organization, as well as be able to identify the boundary between being a peer's supervisor and a peer's clinician or support system.

Though peer employees present obvious challenges, the benefits far outweigh the potential obstacles. Peer employees and peer-run organizations, according to the presenters, are not expensive to run at all, and clients are able to access more compassionate, personalized care that will bring about lasting recovery.



I work as a volunteer in a completely peer-run organization, The Awakenings Project, which is a grass-roots initiative whose mission is to assist artists with psychiatric illnesses in developing their craft and finding an outlet for their creative abilities through art in all forms. The Awakenings Project also works to raise public awareness and acceptance of the creative talents of people living with psychiatric disorders who work in the fields of fine art, music, literature, and drama. It has been successful for the past 13 years. I have also worked for the past 6 years at the DuPage County Health Department as a "Consumer Recovery Specialist," which is a position designated for a peer, but I have recently been promoted into a PSR Counselor position (Psychosocial Rehabilitation), which is not designated for a consumer of mental health services. I admire the county's lack of stigma or prejudice in promoting people out of "peer designated" positions, as I was not the first to be so promoted. It's great to hire peers, but it's not great to pigeonhole them in "peer designated" positions.

Lindsay Barba

Lindsay Barba was associate editor of Behavioral Healthcare from 2009 to 2010.

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