Peer Services, the Future of Mental Health

by Kevin Brockel

To be successful in business, it is imperative to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of your customers over time.  The mental health field is no exception.  I have seen many changes in the mental health field over my 15-year career.  One of the most exciting changes in Pennsylvania was the addition of Peer Support Services for adults.  Peer Support Services is an individualized, recovery-focused service that allows individuals the opportunity to manage their own recovery and advocacy process.  Peer Support staff serve to enhance the natural supports in the client’s life and improve their coping and self-management skills.  Peer Support Services began in the Lehigh Valley back in 2008 with few providers.  Peer Support Services are a radical departure from a traditional mental health service.  In a traditional mental health service, you have a professional often with advanced education and credentialing or licensure providing a clinical service to a person struggling with a mental health diagnosis.  Often times this professional is perceived by the client as an authority figure, with formal educational training, and can create an imbalance in the client/provider relationship.  The client does not and will not perceive the clinician as equals.   The fault in this dynamic is that clinicians often have no or limited personal experience with mental health struggles.  This is where the need for a new service was identified.

Peer Support Services are provided by Certified Peer Support (CPS) staff.  To be eligible to become a CPS staff you must have at least a high school diploma and a documented mental health diagnosis yourself.  You must be progressing well in your own mental health recovery.  This is quantified by having at least 12 months of employment or volunteer experience in the last three years.  If a CPS candidate does not meet the vocational requirements, they may also have 24 credit hours of post-secondary education in the previous three years.  If a candidate meets these requirements, they are eligible to register for the two-week Peer Support Certification course.  Upon successful completion of the course, they are eligible to be hired by a Peer Support provider and begin providing Peer Support Services to clients.

The Peer Support/client relationship is much different than the traditional provider/client dynamic seen in other mental health service lines.  Due to having their own mental health diagnosis, peer staff can say “I’ve been there,” or “I’m doing well, so can you” and are living proof that recovery is possible.  They can serve as a role model, mentor, and support to assist a client in managing their mental health symptoms.  This is much different than the traditional provider/client dynamic.  Clients often perceive their CPS worker as an equal through shared experience.  This creates a stronger bond and often better results than a traditional mental health service.

Peer support services are also much more cost effective than a traditional mental health service.  Due to the reduced educational requirements of the staff versus a service like outpatient therapy, the state can offer the provider a lower reimbursement rate for services rendered.  Therefore, this service is cheaper to operate from the state government’s perspective and often more effective than other mental health services geared toward serving adults.  Many agencies have decided to invest in Peer Support Services and also in their Peer Support Staff over the past few years.  The state has followed suit and done the same.  In December 2017, Pennsylvania began allowing providers to offer Peer Support Services to transitional-aged youth (ages 14-21).  We are now also seeing specialized Peer Support Services such as forensic Peer Support that works with clients involved in the criminal justice system, or Drug & Alcohol Peer Support which works with dually-diagnosed individuals who have a mental health diagnosis and co-occurring substance abuse problem.  Peer Support Services are growing exponentially. It is exciting to see where this service can go in the future and the positive changes these staff can help make in the lives of those they serve.

If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a CPS staff or would benefit from receiving Peer Support Services, please contact Pennsylvania MENTOR at (610) 867-3173, or visit our website at

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