The power of peer support cannot be expressed in simple terms. Who better to aid a person who is severe mental pain than someone who has been there themselves. Peer supporter is a growing field, enabling many who have achieved success in dealing with their own emotional disorders to offer a hand up to those who are beginning treatment, or who find themselves in crisis.
In speaking with those who have become peer support specialists in the region I live, I recognize that although working as a peer supporter specialist can be very rewarding, there are some unfortunate realities these invaluable people face.
One is the lack of recognition by some mental health professionals of their value. There is an undercurrent of disapproval by some professionals of the abilities and worth of those who have not gained a substantial degree from college to work with the mentally challenged. This bias makes working in some facilities difficult at best and unbearable at worst. I have spoken to two peer support specialists who spoke of having information withheld from them that they needed to complete their work, and having mental health professionals tell them to their faces that they did not believe that a person who has not earned a degree has any business offering support to their clients.
Another problem that I have identified is the combination of low pay and lack of security on the job. The pay of a peer support specialist is usually at or slightly higher than minimum wage. This is small compensation for someone who is working in a highly emotionally draining position. Peer support specialists work under the same ethical conditions as people who have a college degree, and are required to complete hours of paperwork. Many perform other duties as well, such as leading psychosocial groups. The hours they work are often in jeopardy, their positions being seen as less essential to many organizations.
A third problem I would like to discuss is the lack of training recommendations of people who wish to become peer support specialists. In Illinois, where I live, anyone who wishes to work as an official peer support specialist, must complete the many requirements listed below:
Complete a two-day training at the cost of $75
2,000 hours of on the job paid or volunteer supervised experience of which 51% must involve providing mental health recovery support services.
Preparation of recovery plans
Documentation of client progress
Possess a high school diploma or GED
Take a proficiency examination costing $125
As a person who lives on disability insurance through the US government, I can tell you plainly that the monetary cost to me was very prohibitive when I thought about gaining my CRSS credential. Although Social Security Disability Insurance allows me to work several hours for pay and not lose benefits, the food assistance program I utilize and the low-income housing rate I enjoy would be in great jeopardy were I to work for pay without the benefit of knowing I would be hired and paid well by a mental health facility. As I have said above, the lack of acceptance of a peer specialist’s worth, the low pay and the lack of security that one would have enough hours to live on make working for a CRSS too risky of a gamble for many, including myself. Not only this, but the cost of the training and the testing add to the conundrum of one who lives on a fixed income.
I am certainly and absolutely not devaluing the wonderful value of peer support specialists! They are my heroes! Those who have stuck through the process of proving to providers their worth, taking on the silent ridicule and the low pay should receive medals. Their dedication and fearlessness can never be overstated. To be able to into a facility and have someone sit down with me who can listen and totally understand my distress is priceless and the peer support specialists of today who are breaking this new ground need to be celebrated.
The negative things I wrote above were to only bring to light some of the pitfalls of the current training process that I have observed.
However, the main emphasis of this blog entry is to say to those brave people who are working silently behind the scenes as peer support specialists, bravo! We who live with mental health issues applaud you and the wonderful and difficult work you have dedicated your lives to!