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Tips on Promoting Job Success for Peer Providers at Community Mental Health Agencies

A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

Youth with serious mental health conditions (SMHCs) have medical diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression. These youth may benefit from relationships with young adult peers who have themselves experienced SMHCs and are now in recovery. Some community mental health agencies employ young adults with SMHCs to be peer providers, serving as role models and advocates for their clients. Being a peer provider can be a rewarding job that offers valuable employment experience, but it can also be challenging and stressful, especially if these young peer providers are not taken seriously by other staff at the agency. Sometimes, older agency staff might treat peer providers more like clients than colleagues, or not fully value their input. In addition, young peer providers may lack the skills and training to fully support their clients through mental health crises and maintain appropriate boundaries. In a recent NIDILRR-funded study, researchers looked at what factors may help young peer providers succeed at their jobs despite these challenges.

Researchers at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Learning and Working During the Transition to Adulthood (Transitions RTC) held focus groups with 14 people from two mental health programs in the greater Boston area. Both centers had a history of integrating young adult peer providers in their service delivery teams. Seven of the participants were peer providers: adults aged 21-26 years old who had experienced a SMHC and, at the time of the study, were working as a peer provider at least four hours a week. The other seven participants supervised peer providers as part of their job description.  The researchers asked all participants to describe what factors they thought would help young adults with SMHCs to be successful as peer providers.

The researchers reviewed all of the comments from the focus group participants and identified eight factors that the participants said were important for peer providers to be successful:

  1. Persistence: It is important for peer providers to continue trying when their job gets tough.
  2. Resilience: It is important for peer providers to develop coping and self-care skills so they can rebound from challenges on the job.
  3. Job confidence: Understanding and feeling comfortable with the peer provider role is an important part of job success.
  4. Regular, individualized supervision:  Employee-supervisor relationship is a vital part of job success. Supervisors can offer encouragement, constructive feedback, and reasonable accommodations on the job. Supervisors can also help other staff members better appreciate the peer provider role.
  5. Supportive colleagues: It is important for peer providers to have strong supportive relationships with other agency staff who value them as team members.
  6. Support from family and friends: Support from family and friends helps peer providers cope effectively with the demands of their job.
  7. Effective communication: Learning to communicate using a professional tone and fitting communication style to that of older colleagues helps peer providers to be taken more seriously when they advocate for their clients’ needs.
  8. Job training: Training workshops play an important role in helping peer providers improve their job performance, particularly workshops on effective action planning with clients.

Based on these findings, the authors suggested some improvements that community mental health agencies can make to better integrate peer providers into their workforce. These include:

  • Training for peer providers to them help build their persistence, resilience, and job confidence. That training should include self-care and coping strategies.
  • Stronger agency policies on reasonable accommodations for peer providers, such as allowing peer providers to request extra training or one-on-one support when needed.
  • Agency policies clarifying peer providers’ role and making older staff more aware of what peer providers can offer.
  • Programs allowing for more informal interaction between peer providers and their older colleagues.
  • Efforts to include peer providers in organizational decision-making.

The authors noted that the use of young peer providers is relatively new in the field of mental health services and more agencies and organizations may choose to integrate peer providers into their staff in the future. For these young people, this may be their first professional position. This integration can be a good way to engage peer providers in the recovery process, but it can also be stressful and challenging. Using strategies and supports such as the ones identified by the peer providers and supervisors in this study may help alleviate stress and address the challenges new peer providers face, paving the way to a successful career. To further promote peer provider job success, researchers may want to study how peer providers develop their coping strategies over time and how this impacts their job performance and satisfaction.

To Learn More:

The Transitions RTC continues to conduct research on supports for young adult employment, including peer specialists and mentors:

The website contains a Toolkit for Employing Young Adult Peer Providers:

Making it Work: Vocational Peer Mentors for Emerging Adults with Serious Mental Health Conditions:

Nothing About Us Without Us: Growing Meaningful Youth Involvement in Your Organization:

The Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Pathways to Positive Futures conducts research on the young adult peer support workforce in its AMP+ project.

Youth and Young Adult Peer Support: What the Research Tells Us About Effectiveness in Mental Health Services:

To Learn More About this Study:

Delman, J. and Klodnick, V.V. (2016) Factors supporting the employment of young adult peer providers: Perspectives of peers and supervisors. Community Mental Health Journal, October 2016. This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J74780.

This project was also supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Date published: