Putting “Career” into Peer Career Development
What Agencies Need to Do to Support Peer Workers
The behavioral health peer support workforce includes at least 25,000 certified peer specialists nationally, with many more thousands of peer support workers employed in behavioral and primary health care systems.
In New York State 2,100 peer specialists are provisionally certified; at least half are in New York City.
Recognition of peer support as a profession leads to a focus on professional growth and development, including increased compensation; merit increases; promotion and advancement; movement from part-time to full-time positions; increasing job responsibilities; continuing education; lateral moves; and employing peers in senior management roles (supervision, management, program development, leadership).
Peer support workers are employed in many different settings: advocacy, housing, education, employment, crisis support, hospital diversion, artistic and cultural activities, recovery education, social and recreational activities, forensic, jail diversion, mentoring, traditional healing, support in daily living, peer bridging, system navigation.
Peer support services are offered in informal/grassroots organizations, independent peer-run organizations, mainstream behavioral health treatment and service agencies, and integrated healthcare agencies/systems.
Agencies can promote and support career development and advancement by advocating for peer advancement; creating career and compensation ladders; assuring peer voice throughout the agency/system; assuring that supervisors discuss career advancement with supervisees.
Including promotion and increased compensation opportunities in regular performance review; providing release time and funding for continuing education and academic studies, creating senior peer management roles and hiring peers in these roles; advocating for transferability of peer certification within and between states, and ensuring that employees are aware of various work incentives offered through SSA to maximize benefits and keep Medicaid while working.
Some systems that currently include career advancement in peer specialist employment include the U.S. Veterans Administration, with peer specialist career ladders, promotion, and compensation increases; state systems in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania; peer majority agencies, such as Community Access, Baltic Street, Community Support Systems of New Jersey (CSPNJ); and private managed care systems such as Optum and Magellan.
Career strategies for peers may include: seeking promotion, new assignments/responsibilities and increased compensation in traditional agencies; working in peer-run agencies and integrated health/behavioral health settings; working in health advocacy and as health navigators and/or recovery peer advocates.
Other settings such as palliative care, respite; providing support for specific health conditions; becoming a peer supervisor; obtaining additional academic credentials to qualify for higher-level positions.
Other potential career pathways may include: new credentials/academic disciplines and/or enhanced lived experience curricula in existing disciplines; assuring inclusion of lived experience in training and credentialing courses.
Promotion of peer specialists who have demonstrated competency while not necessarily seeking advanced degrees; seeking “lateral transfers” to integrated health, dual diagnosis and other settings.
‘Out of the box’ career options peers may explore include using skills learned in peer roles in other fields of work; developing new roles and income sources such as self-employment and entrepreneurial options; creative arts; improvisation, comedy; public relations; life coaching; motivational speaking.
In order to promote peer career development and advancement effectively, we recommend:
1) Existing peer-focused associations explicitly promote adequate compensation, promotional opportunities and career ladders for peer support workers. These may include the New York City Peer Workforce Coalition and the New York City Peer Workforce Consortium; NYAPRS; and INAPS (International Association of Peer Supporters);
2) Continued education about peer career development/advancement options through the NYC Peer Specialist Conference, NYAPRS, the NYS Academy of Peer Services Conference and other local, state and national conferences;
3) Form coalitions of peer organizations, agencies providing peer services, educational institutions and certification entities to create continuing education and for-credit programs enabling peer workers to obtain additional educational credentials based on lived experience and peer support values; and
4) Create a peer support specialist federal Standard Occupational Classification. An important first step: WHEN COMPLETING THE 2020 CENSUS FORM, WE STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT ALL PEER SUPPORT WORKERS (mental health, substance use, forensic, youth, etc.) STATE THEIR OCCUPATION AS PEER SUPPORT SPECIALIST.
Significant response numbers will help in designation of peer support specialist as a federal Standard Occupational Classification. Employment and compensation information would then be collected across the country, which would greatly facilitate availability of essential data for career advancement purposes.
Continued partnering of all stakeholders can yield peer career development and advancement progress. Onward, peer support!
Note: This article is based on recent conference and webinar presentations in which Elizabeth Breier of the NY Coalition for Behavioral Health and Jeremy Reuling, MHA of Westchester, also participated.
Pullout: ‘Agencies can promote and support career development and advancement by advocating for peer advancement; creating career and compensation ladders; assuring peer voice throughout the agency/system; assuring that supervisors discuss career advancement with supervisees [and much much more]….’