Tennessee now has over 1,000 people across the state who are actively using their past experience with mental-health and substance-use challenges to help others who are struggling.
They are part of the Tennessee Certified Peer Recovery Specialist program.
Lisa Ragan, director of Consumer Affairs and Peer Recovery Services for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said a Peer Specialist has been in recovery at least two years and must complete 40 hours of training to get their certification.
She added that the program also helps them find employment.
“They’re in community mental health agencies, substance use treatment facilities,” said Ragan. “They’re in recovery courts and they work in different hospital settings, psychiatric hospitals. We’ve got veteran Certified Peer Recovery Specialists working in the VAs.”
The pandemic worsened mental health conditions across the county. In Tennessee, a year after the pandemic began, almost 35% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Ragan said some Certified Peer Recovery Specialists have been discouraged by the relatively low pay in their field – but the agencies that employ them are working to improve wages.
“Those need to be increased as much as possible,” said Ragan. “And to be honest, the entire behavioral health workforce is saying, ‘We need increases in salary.’ But that’s something that’s really been a need statewide.”
Ragan described the Certified Peer Recovery Specialists as role models, who are able to connect with people by sharing their own stories of overcoming challenges to improve their lives.
She added that peer support is an important complement to other types of care.
“So ideally, someone is getting everything they can from traditional treatment – maybe medication therapy, what have you – and it can do a lot, right?” said Ragan. “But peer support can take it that extra step, can really inspire folks to move forward in their recovery.”
The Peer Support certifications include programs for family members of children with behavioral health needs, and for young adults.
Since the program began in 2007, more than 2,000 Tennesseans have earned their certifications – including 600 just this year.