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Peer Recovery Programs: How Do They Make a Difference?

Your peers have a significant influence on you. Peer approval and support gives you confidence and a sense of solidarity. It’s why you dressed like your friends when you were growing up and asked if other people got the same answers on a test. Humans are social creatures, and peers can form a big part of your community. On the other hand, addiction is very isolating. In fact, isolation, changes in your friend group, and disconnection with family are hallmark signs of substance use disorders. Addiction can lead to isolation, but feeling disconnected from a community can also lead to addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a strong sense of neighborhood attachment is a protective factor against addiction for young people. 

Support through peer recovery programs can help bridge the gap between the isolation of addiction and inclusion in a community. Learn more about peer recovery programs and how peer support can make a difference. 

What is a Peer Recovery Program?

A peer recovery program is an approach to addiction treatment and mental health services that involve the help of people that have had success in recovery. Peers refer to people that are in recovery from a substance use disorder or a mental health issue. The idea behind peer recovery programs is that the involvement of people that have had success in recovery carries a message of hope. It may also increase a person’s engagement in the treatment process and increase their motivation to participate in treatment. It also gives people in recovery an avenue to help others that have gone through similar challenges they have and even find a career in mental health and addiction treatment. 

Peer support in addiction recovery has its roots in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. These early addiction recovery programs greatly emphasized the importance of support from other people that have gone through the recovery process. In A.A.’s guiding resource The Big Book, founder Bill Wilson writes, “we alcoholics see that we must work together and hang together, else most of us will finally die alone.” The importance of people in recovery helping each other is a cornerstone of 12-step programs to this day.

Peer recovery programs also emphasize connection and community in the treatment of substance use problems. What A.A. encouraged decades ago has been recognized by scientific research as an important aspect of recovery. Addiction is a complicated disease that can be caused by multiple factors. But a lack of connection may be a significant risk factor for developing a substance use disorder. 

Effective addiction treatment should address biological, psychological, and social needs. Since A.A. pioneered a community approach to addressing substance use disorders, research has found that forging social connections is instrumental in treatment. Forming social connections is possible through a variety of means through addiction treatment, including group therapy, 12-step programs, and therapies that help you build social skills. However, peer recovery programs approach treatment with an emphasis on social support. 

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Peer Support Groups

Peer support groups include 12-step programs like A.A. and Narcotics Anonymous as well as other community-based support groups. These programs are widely available. A.A. and N.A. have groups that meet all over the world and in nearly every city in the U.S. They offer a way for people to connect with a community of people that have gone through similar trials and share similar goals. While doctors and therapists offer valuable insights into your medical and psychological health, peer groups can offer community involvement, long-term accountability, a sense of acceptance, and lasting friendship. 

The author C.S. Lewis once wrote, “In a circle of true Friends, each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself.” Your relationship with your doctor or therapist may be indispensable to your recovery, but in a peer group, you’re able to form friendships that allow you to open up and share your experience in a unique way. You aren’t just there to receive but also to give support. This community connection is vital in fighting relapse in the long-term. Plus, unlike therapy and addiction treatment, there are free community-based peer support groups. There are no financial barriers to attending an N.A. meeting, which only adds to the long-term viability of peer support groups.

Programs like 12-step groups aren’t necessarily a replacement for formal addiction treatment. But most addiction treatment programs will recommend some kind of peer support group that will allow you to continue to pursue recovery even after you finish formal treatment. Since addiction is a chronic disease, a life-long commitment to recovery is important. Many addiction treatment programs have integrated peer support groups into them.

What is Peer Coaching and Mentoring?

A peer coach or a peer mentor is a person that has experienced addiction or mental health issues that required treatment and a commitment to recovery. Peer coaches can get certification to become certified peer recovery specialists. However, peer coaches generally don’t fill an authoritative role. Peer coaches often have one-on-one sessions with clients that can involve a simple conversation. 

They may take on roles that are similar to a sponsor in a 12-step program. However, not all peer mentors work within a 12-step framework. Peer mentors may help in the early stages of recovery to help someone find treatment that’s right for them. A 12-step mentor operates within the 12-step model only.

Peers discussing treatment options and recovery groups

They may also offer bedside support to someone that’s recovering from a crisis or relapse. In other cases, peer mentors can take on a more practical role, similar to a case manager. They may help create a resume, apply for jobs, look for housing, or even make new friends. 

In all duties, peer mentors are meant to offer a supportive relationship, rather than one that’s instructive. 

Why Do Peer Recovery Specialists Make a Difference?

Peer recovery specialists offer some unique advantages to someone in recovery. Doctors and therapists may have a breadth of knowledge and experience in treating substance use disorders and mental health issues. But peers can empathize with clients in a way that many treatment professionals cannot.

Because peer support involves people that are not acting in the role of a doctor or clinician, the tone of it is non-prescriptive. A person in recovery may have medical and clinical professionals that speak to them in a prescriptive way, telling them what they should do. This authoritative relationship can be helpful in many settings, but peer support offers a more relaxed environment. 

Peer recovery specialists develop a relationship with clients based on non-prescriptive communication. In other words, they don’t directly talk about what the client should or must do. Instead, they may offer their own experience and what was helpful for them. Peer to peer relationships may be deeper and more meaningful than authoritative relationships. 

Peer mentors also offer living proof that recovery is possible. Clients may assume that their problems are too difficult to overcome or that they aren’t cut out to achieve lasting sobriety. Getting to know someone that’s gone through some of the same challenges they have and succeeded can help give a client hope that they may succeed too. Peer mentors can also offer a unique degree of validation to clients as they share their stories and struggles with someone who can empathize with them.

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction

Alcoholics Anonymous. (n.d.). THE A.A. TRADITION. Retrieved from https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/en_bigbook_appendicei.pdf

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, May 25). What are risk factors and protective factors? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/preventing-drug-use-among-children-adolescents/chapter-1-risk-factors-protective-factors/what-are-risk-factors

SAMHSA. (2009, October). What Are Peer Recovery Support Services? Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/brss-tacs/recovery-support-tools/peers

Weiss, R. (2015, September 30). The Opposite of Addiction is Connection | Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/love-and-sex-in-the-digital-age/201509/the-opposite-addiction-is-connection

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