What Is a Peer Support Specialist (And How Do I Become One)?

It’s common for someone in recovery from substance use disorder (SUD) to want to give back to their community or “pay it forward” by helping others. However, it’s not always clear how to do this, where to go, or what kind of training is needed. There are actually several different paths one could take to support others in their recovery. Some careers, like mental health counselor or social worker, require years of training and formal education. Others simply require having lived experience and being part of the community you serve. And, because there is so much overlap in many of these jobs, their differences are not always clear, increasing confusion.

In 2020, California passed Senate Bill 803, which allows certified peer support specialists to get reimbursed through Medi-Cal, a huge step forward for mental health and SUD treatment. People with lived experience can now be certified by the state to assist those in treatment, significantly improving outcomes.

But what exactly is a peer support specialist? What do they do? And how do you become one? We aim to explain all that and more in this post.

What Is a Peer Support Specialist?

A Peer Support Specialist assists in the treatment of substance use and mental health disorders through support and assistance. What separates peer support specialists from other treatment providers is their lived experience. Peer Support Specialists’ lived experience make them uniquely equipped to help those in treatment. They can meet those in treatment where they are and provide a judgement-free space to grow and heal.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track Peer Support Specialists. Instead, they’re included under the Community Health Worker umbrella. The number of Community Health Workers in the United States totaled 67,200 employed in 2022 with a faster than average growth rate of 14%. The median annual wage for these workers was $46,190 in 2022.

What Does a Peer Support Specialist Do?

The scope of a Peer Support Specialist’s responsibilities is wide and sometimes vague. In short, Peer Support Specialists support individuals in recovery from mental health or substance use challenges. How that looks can vary between peer support specialists and those they treat. These duties may include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Supporting the ongoing treatment of individuals by connecting them with services and removing barriers.
  • Assisting individuals in developing healthy coping mechanisms, resiliency, and other support skills.
  • Working with individuals’ families to increase their understanding and build a stronger support network.
  • Increase individuals’ engagement with the treatment process by providing a judgement-free space.
  • Assist individuals in accessing services or resources that aren’t necessarily directly related to treatment, like housing support or food pantries.

The primary goal of a Peer Support Specialist is to help individuals overcome their treatment challenges, however that might manifest. Peer Support Specialists do this by listening to their clients, helping them set goals, and removing barriers that keep them from meeting those goals.

How Can I Become a Peer Support Specialist?

California now has a specific certification process for becoming a Peer Support Specialist. The California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA) certification is the only way Peer Support Specialists can bill Medi-Cal. The certification must be renewed every two years.

Initial Certification Requirements

Individuals looking to become certified Peer Support Specialists in California must:

  • Be at least 18 years old.
  • Have a high school diploma or similar degree.
  • Have lived experience either as someone with mental health or substance use challenges or as a direct caregiver of someone with said challenges.
  • Be willing to share their experience.
  • Agree, in writing, to adhere to the Code of Ethics.
  • Successfully complete the 80-hour training through a CalMHSA-approved training facility.
  • Pass the certification exam.

Qualities of a successful Peer Support Specialist include, in part:

  • Active listening skills.
  • Healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Compassion and a drive to help others.
  • A strong support network.

Certification Process

To get certified as a Peer Support Specialist in California will need to apply for training and certification. The initial application procedure can take upwards of 50 minutes and requires that the applying individual has a .jpeg or .pdf copy of their photo ID and high school diploma or other degree.

The process is as follows:

  1. Register a new account through CalMHSA’s Certification portal.
  2. Watch the mandatory introduction video (approx. 30 minutes).
  3. Complete the application and upload verification documents.
  4. Pay the application fee.
  5. Complete the 80-hour certification training.
  6. Upload your certificate to your application.

CalMHSA will then review your application and you should hear back from them within 14 days. Once your application has been approved, you can take schedule an appointment to take the exam. After you take and pass the certification exam, CalMHSA will email you a formal notification up to 14 days after your exam has been processed.

How Much Does It Cost?

Certification Fees
Application Fee$100
Certification Exam Fee$150
Exam Retake Fee$150
Renewal Application Fee$80
As of writing (October 2023), it costs $250 to apply and take the certification exam. This does not include training costs, which vary by host site.

If cost is a barrier to getting your Peer Support Specialist certification, scholarships are available. Find out more on the CalMHSA website.

What Other Types of Support Work Exists?

Peer Support Specialists are a vital element of any Substance Use Disorder treatment care team. As the substance use crisis escalates with the recent introduction of xylazine into the market, we need more allies in treatment than ever. Becoming a Peer Support Specialist is a great way to help others in treatment but it isn’t the only way. Other recovery service jobs include:

  • Community Health Workers: A broad term for individuals who serve their community by connecting people with resources they need to be healthy.
  • Substance Use Navigators: SUNs work in hospital and treatment settings to advocate for those in treatment and remove barriers.
  • Promotores de Salud (Community Health Promoters): Promotores de Salud are Community Health Workers who specifically serve Spanish-speaking communities.

As noted earlier, these occupations all have significant overlap in the communities they serve and the skills needed to excel in them. However, there is certainly something for everyone, no matter your background or qualifications. If you have a strong tie to your community and a desire to help others recover, there is a place for you in recovery support.

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