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Peer Specialists, What’s in a Name?

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I hold a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing communications. Over the years, while working in the mental health field, I have taken several online courses and written articles on changing ideas and philosophies of peer support.

Also, from my perspective, I hope to get more respect and gratitude for peer specialists and try to make it a viable choice as a major in colleges and universities and lead to a justifiable career.   

Due partly to the conclusion of prejudicial and worldwide opinion, many peer specialists around the globe are treated as second-hand traditional counsellors.

In addition, a high percentage are relegated to positions of lower status and salaries, even though we perform many of the same responsibilities, duties or tasks. We are called peer specialists, but is that what we do?

Traditional counselling service agencies seem to have taken over the term counsellor. Also, it is frowned upon by others who also want to use this word. Are therapists trying to protect what is believed to be for all therapists alone? Do counsellors think this is because of wage or job security? Think about this, is this remotely possible?   

As a peer specialist, I am concerned about our ever-changing name. Some days, we are peer specialists called peer supporters. For other instances, we use a combination named peer support specialists.

A few years ago, we were identified as peer counsellors. This discussion sounds childish and often petty; it borders on being silly. How can we hope to be unified when we can not pick our name? We are people; first, we will get through this.

Are the populous scared of treating peer specialists like professionals? Our sense of reality is that many of us have several years of actual first-hand experience with mental health concerns. In addition, we have extensive training in peer support methods.

Many peer specialists are highly educated with undergraduate diplomas from colleges and universities plus master’s degrees, and some doctors are peers.  

Since my friend has a background in counselling and therapy, I figured I could pick his brain. He noticed that peer specialists use methods similar to mental health counsellors. Also, he stated that a couple of these are Client-Centred Therapy and the technique of Motivational Interviewing

Many peer supporters use these approaches and borrow many components and forms of therapy or counselling. So maybe we need to call peer specialists, perhaps peer counsellors. A famous baseball expression, ‘call them as we see them?’, reflects some people’s opinion on identifying peer specialists.

Client-centred therapy or Person-centered therapy

It is a form of talk therapy developed in the 1940s by psychologist and author Carl Rogers. In this approach, we act as equal partners in the therapy process, while our therapist frequently remains non-directive.

These therapists don’t pass many judgements on our feelings plus tend not to offer suggestions or solutions. Rogers also believed that people are the best expert on our lives and experiences. His form of therapy allowed his clients to fulfil their potential by relying on their strength to change.     

Motivational interviewing

Two psychologists, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, developed a counselling method in the 1980s and 1990s. It involves enhancing a person’s motivation to change through four guiding principles. These are expressed by the acronym RULE.

  • Resist the righting reflex.
  • Understand the person’s motivation.
  • Listen with compassion.
  • Empower the person. 

Both therapists and peer specialists use these techniques to assist the people they work with. Maybe, this is the push to call peer specialists, back to an initial name, peer counsellors.

However, each comes from different frames of reference. While the therapist uses techniques that have worked for people, peer specialists use methods that we might have employed, which is first-hand knowledge.

Also, peer specialists don’t counsel others; we give others options that have assisted the peer. Thankfully some professionals are using the preferred terminology as peer specialists.

However, I have seen peer counselling used in psychiatric rehabilitation textbooks. For example, Mary Ellen Copeland, the author of Wellness Recovery Action Plan, continues to use the term ‘peer counselling’ in her well-known WRAP and her other manuals. Even camp counsellors and lawyers use this term, then why do peer specialists need to do the same? 

As for me, I have very high expectations for longevity in the profession of peer specialist. Since I am a certified peer specialist, my hope is not only that this occupation continues to grow, but my wish is that it gets fully recognised by leaders of the Department of Labor and the President.

But this all begins with using one unified name, peer specialist. Perhaps, one day, we will see a degree in peer specialists being learned and taught in colleges and universities by peer specialists, and it will become a viable career path.  

For over 25 years, I have worked in the mental health field. All of the names have changed several times, and in the forcibly future, I see this happening more. It’s not the title that matters most to me; the work accomplished means more.

Unfortunately, due to the nerve damage that has limited me and made it hard to go to work, I still believe that a peer is valuable to the world, whatever the name used.

Howard Diamond is a certified peer specialist from Long Island.


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