What Are Peer Recovery Support Services?

What Are Peer Recovery Support Services?

What Are Peer Recovery Support Services?Aisha says she knows many people who tried treatment for a substance use disorder; they also tried 12-Step meetings. Neither worked. Her friends are back on the street, still using. Anyway, Aisha doesn’t have time to attend treatment sessions or go to meetings; she has a full-time job and is busy raising her two grandchildren because their mother is in prison.

Roger has just been released from jail. He has been clean for the 90 days of his incarceration, and he thinks he can stay clean if he can just find a job and a place to live with other people in recovery.

Elizabeth tells her treatment counselor that payday is her trigger, and that she needs an alcohol- and drug-free place to go and socialize on Friday evenings. She adds that it would be helpful if she could bring her children.

Luis says he understands that his AA meeting is not the place to discuss the complications he is encountering with his hepatitis C medications. But he needs someone to talk to because managing his response to the medications and his recovery at the same time is just too much for him to handle.

Bodie has been in recovery for a year. He is looking for an opportunity to be of service and to strengthen his recovery by giving back to the community. He loves gospel music and sings in his church choir.


What do all these people have in common? Although they are at different points in the process of recovering from a substance use disorder, each is expressing a need for some form of social support to help them through the process. Equally important, each is also a potential source of social support for others.

In this paper on What Are Peer Recovery Support Services, you will be introduced to a new kind of social support services designed to fill the needs of people in or seeking recovery. The services are called peer recovery support services and, as the word peer implies, they are designed and delivered by people who have experienced both substance use disorder and recovery.

Through the Recovery Community Services Program (RCSP), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (SAMHSA/CSAT) funds grant projects across the country to develop and deliver these services.

The peer recovery support services developed by the RCSP projects help people become and stay engaged in the recovery process and reduce the likelihood of relapse. Because they are designed and delivered by peers who have been successful in the recovery process, they embody a powerful message of hope, as well as a wealth of experiential knowledge. The services can effectively extend the reach of treatment beyond the clinical setting into the everyday environment of those seeking to achieve or sustain recovery.

Social Support for Recovery

Research has shown that recovery is facilitated by social support (McLellan et al., 1998), and four types of social support have been identified in the literature (Cobb, 1976; Salzer, 2002): emotional, informational, instrumental, and affiliation support. RCSP projects have found these four types of social support useful in organizing the community-based peer-to-peer services they provide to recovering people. (Some typical examples are shown in Figure 1 below.) These four categories refer to types of social support, not discrete services or service models.

For example, a project that is planning social support services to address recovering people’s employment needs might consider whether a job referral (informational support) by itself is adequate, or whether emotional support (such as supportive coaching to prepare for an interview), and/or instrumental support (such as help cleaning up a criminal record) might also be needed.

In general, the more robust the types of social support available to address any given recovery concern, the more likely that a person seeking help will walk away with useful information, anew insight or skill, or more confidence to help with the tasks ahead.

Peer Leaders and the Peer Service Alliance

RCSP projects use the term peer to refer to all individuals who share the experiences of addiction and recovery, either directly or as family members or significant others. In a peer-helping-Peer service alliance, a peer leader in stable recovery provides social support.

Figure 1-Type of Social Support and Associated Peer Recovery Support Services to a peer who is seeking help in establishing or maintaining his or her recovery. Both parties are helped by the interaction as the recovery of each is strengthened. 

RCSP projects use many other titles besides peer leader and peer to describe the parties to the peer service alliance. On the peer leader side of the equation, titles include recovery (or peer) mentor, guide, or coach; peer services interventionist; Firestarter; and peer resource specialist. (Firestarter’s are peer leaders responsible for building local recovery communities in Native American communities.)

The peer who seeks help also is given different titles in different RCSP projects, such as member (of the peer services organization), mentee, or simply peer. Most project leaders have consciously sought to find and use identifying terms that distinguish their peer services and service providers from those in formal, professional treatment programs or in mutual aid groups conducted by lay persons. For this reason, terms such as counselor, case manager, or sponsor, as well as client, consumer, or patient, are avoided.

The RCSP projects’ attention to language reflects the need to clearly distinguish the role of the peer leader from the role of the treatment counselor or other professional and the 12-Step sponsor (White, 2006). RCSP projects are intended by CSAT to enhance—not duplicate, replace, or compete with— valuable services already available in a community.

Thus, in addition to using language which is not associated with treatment or mutual aid programs, axioms such as the following are commonly heard: “Peers do not diagnose;” “Peers do not provide therapy;” “Peers do not give advice.” Similarly, it is common to hear, “You need to ask your sponsor, not me, for help working the 12-Steps,” or “That’s a question for the doctor or nurse.”



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Warmest Regards, Coyalita

Behavioral Health Rehabilitative Specialist & Addiction Counselor

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