There is great power in learning from someone who has “been there before.” People with similar experiences may be able to listen and provide hope and guidance in a way that is uniquely received.

So-called “mental health peer support” has existed for decades. Since the 1990s, the concept of “consumers as providers” has become a larger component in mental health service settings.

Perhaps there is no more powerful example of the power of peer support than when a recovering compulsive gambler shares their story with someone still in the throes of addiction. Indeed, programs such as Gamblers Anonymous are built largely on the idea that others with similar challenges can lead the way to recovery.

A peer support specialist is someone who has progressed in their own recovery from alcohol or other drug abuse or mental disorder and is willing to identify themself as a peer and work to assist other individuals with chemical dependency or a mental disorder. In Minnesota, peer support specialists must complete 80 hours of intensive training that emphasizes translating concepts and skills into practice. A peer support specialist provides assistance in an in-person, one-to-one setting, making it different than those offering crisis support.

“The idea is that I’m the evidence of recovery,” says one peer support specialist who is in recovery from gambling addiction. “Someone can look up to me or admire me and think, ‘Oh, that person did it, so so can I.’ We show others that recovery is real.”

Peer support specialists employ empowering language to help communicate to others that they are in charge of their own lives and their own recovery. “Our job is not to fix them,” says a woman who recently completed peer support specialist training. “The person in recovery still has to do the work.”

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) now recognizes peer support providers as a distinct provider type for the delivery of support services and considers it an evidence-based mental health model of care. A certified peer specialist does not replace other mental health professionals, but rather complements an array of mental health support services.

Currently, peers are not employed in gambling treatment programs. The service is reimbursable only in ACT (assertive community treatment), IRTS (intensive residential treatment services), ARMHS (adult rehabilitative mental health services) and crisis stabilization.

Qualifications to become a certified peer specialist are detailed on the Minnesota Department of Human Services website. Among the criteria, an individual must have or have had a primary diagnosis of mental illness. Qualified individuals may be hired at an entry level as a Certified Peer Specialist Level I or at an advanced level as a Certified Peer Specialist Level II.

For more information about the certified peer support program, contact Shelley White at the Minnesota Department of Human Services at shelley.white@state.mn.us or (651) 431-2518.