As community focus increases on mental health and substance use issues — particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic — the need for certified recovery peer support specialists may be at an all-time high.
That was the message of Tina Kinney, executive director National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Hernando, during an April 13 virtual social services event hosted by Saint Leo University’s East Pasco Education Center.
Kinney’s talk came as part of a speaker series for students and prospective students interested in “helping careers.”
The topics for the free online series are designed to have broad appeal to those interested in social work, education, criminal justice, psychology, and human services.
Throughout the webinar, Kinney highlighted the role of peer support specialists. They are people who’ve been successful in the recovery process themselves and who help others battling addiction, mental health or criminal justice issues.
Through their shared experience they can provide understanding, respect and mutual empowerment.
The peer support specialist focuses on holistic person-centered, strength-based support, where connections are made through crisis intervention teams, state hospitals, emergency rooms, correction facilities, courts, halfway houses, mental health offices and other community settings.
This approach has shown to reduce relapse and recidivism rates over time, the speaker said.
Kinney herself is a certified recovery peer specialist, based on her and family members’ mental health conditions.
She labeled a peer support specialist’s function as part mentor, part accountability partner, part sponsor — all while working in conjunction with clinical providers.
Kinney acknowledged how she’s overcome her own past mental health challenges to become the leader of a large nonprofit in Hernando — a prime example of encouraging outcomes peer specialists can share with others.
She put it like this: “We want to inspire hope and share our lived experience, because it is that lived experience that’s able to provide the hope for individuals. When they see someone like myself…that alone is an opportunity for people to be hopeful that this is not a lifelong sentence they’re going to have to live with.”
Peer specialists seek to make individuals aware of various community resources, which may include employment preparation and job prospects, transportation opportunities, assisting with food stamps applications, and general socialization techniques.
“I joke around about NAMI Hernando being the best kept secret in Hernando County, but we’re not the only ones,” Kinney said. “There’s a lot of resources in our community that people don’t know about, and so, because we have access to networking with all these other programs, we have information that can help people connect to more resources.”
Peer specialists also encourage people to explore other support networks, such as faith-based programs, yoga, art classes or other opportunities, to ensure needs are met in mind, body and spirit.
In other words, Kinney said: “A stool doesn’t stand on one leg.”
A peer specialist’s role can be likened to an around-the-clock therapist — which is almost a necessity given how the present pandemic-impacted landscape has overwhelmed behavioral health networks.
“Because we do not have enough (health care) providers in the community, peers have a little bit more of an opportunity to meet with people more often than maybe they can meet with their therapist; they may only meet with their therapist once a month or every other week, so if they have a peer support specialist, that’s somebody they can reach out to when they’re needing to overcome something specific, whether it’s 7 o’ clock at night, or 8 o’ clock in the morning, they can just reach out and talk to that peer support specialist.”
Becoming a certified peer specialist
Those interested in becoming peer specialists can choose a number of pathways.
There are various certified recovery peer support credentials that can be obtained, and opportunities can be researched and applied for through the Florida Certification Board (FCB).
That board designs, develops and manages programs for more than 30 health and human services professions across Florida.
Certifications are available for a youth, adult, family and veterans. The state also is working on a specific validation for forensic peer specialists, for navigating the criminal justice system, Kinney said.
To become a peer specialist, Kinney explained someone must prove they’ve been living in recovery for at least two years.
A 40-hour in-person or online content specific training course, 500 hours of supervised on-the-job training opportunities and an exam, among other components, must be completed to earn FCB certification.
“There are a lot of different steps,” Kinney said, but she said NAMI Hernando and a number of other organizations are willing to help those interested in navigating the process.
Kinney also noted that a criminal record does not disqualify someone from becoming a peer specialist, as there’s an exemption process for certain charges.
Opportunities in the field are increasing, Kinney explained, via law enforcement crisis intervention and mobile response teams, state hospitals, emergency rooms, halfway houses, jails, prisons, and traditional and specialty courts.
Moreover, a new development in the past year or so — state’s attorney and public defenders, in Hernando at least, have begun writing mental health treatment and peer supports into people’s pre-trial interventions, Kinney said.
“The job market for peers in all of these places is growing rapidly,” she said.
Upcoming Saint Leo human services webinars are scheduled for April 27 and May 11, focusing on youth mental health, and suicide prevention and awareness, respectively.
Tools for recovery
Tina Kinney, executive director National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Hernando, detailed three common tools used by peer support specialists to help individuals on their path toward recovery.
- Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP): An in-depth plan created by individuals and led by a peer specialist to discover daily wellness maintenance tools, habits and routines to establish recovery; along with an outline to minimize risk and duration in crisis.
- Recovery Capital Scale: Assessments and conservations regarding a person’s present needs, resources and priorities to sustain recovery, whether it is human capital, financial capital, social capital or community capital.
- SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) Goals: A written plan that essentially takes a seemingly weighty goal or task, and breaks it up into smaller, digestible pieces to build a sense of accomplishment and muscle memory for constructive habits.
For instance, if someone has a goal of working out daily and getting fit, an initial step may call for having the person lay out their gym outfit the night before.
Published April 21, 2021