What is an Alcohol and Drug Peer Support Specialist?

Social support is a vital component of any successful alcohol and drug recovery program. While social support can and does come from a variety of sources, often times, those who have experienced both addiction and recovery serve as the most valuable form of social support for those recovering from addiction.

Peer support specialists (also often referred to as peer recovery supporters) are individuals—peers—who have experienced both substance abuse and the recovery process themselves, and who remain engaged in the recovery process to both (1) reduce their likelihood of relapsing; and (2) to help other addicts through the recovery process.

The term “peer” is used in this context to refer to an individual who is in stable recovery and can share their personal experiences with addiction and recovery with others looking to get sober.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (SAMHSA/CSAT), alcohol and drug peer support services delivered by peers who have successfully gone through the recovery process, “embody a powerful message of hope.”

In a peer-helping-peer environment, both the support specialist and the individual in recovery enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, with the support specialist providing mentoring, coaching, motivation, and support.

What Does a Peer Support Specialist Do?

The job scope of alcohol and peer support specialists may look different from one project to the next although, in general, they are tasked with developing and implementing recovery action plans that include one-on-one mentoring and counseling and activities related to recovery. They may also implement and lead recovery-oriented group activities and support groups.

Peer support specialists help individuals in recovery by:

  • Following the 12-step framework
  • Securing sober housing
  • Locating job training, placement
  • Locating and arranging social services and resources
  • Sharing leisure time, recreational activities

Efforts Being Made to Better Define the Role of Drug and Alcohol Peer Support Recovery Specialists

The peer support specialist profession is a relatively new one, and efforts are being made, both at the state and the national levels, to better define the role through certification. The International Association of Peer Supporters has led the way by publishing the National Guidelines for Peer Supporters in 2013.

Many states have begun or have already implemented certification for these professionals, but the profession is still rather undefined.

How to Become a Drug and Alcohol Peer Support Specialist

To become a peer support recovery specialist, you must first be in a state of stable recovery from drugs and/or alcohol –  about one to two years free of drugs and alcohol, depending on employer requirements and any state mandates..

While education requirements for these jobs tend to vary, most employers require a high school diploma but prefer a bachelor’s degree in a human services field, such as social work, psychology, counseling, etc.

Training programs specific to peer support services are also widely available. You can find a number of peer support training specialist programs here. Training programs are available through a variety of state, private, and nonprofit agencies and many are free.

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State Certification

In many states, peer support recovery specialists can earn a state credential to practice. The requirements vary considerably from one state to the next, and some states offer certification to denote expertise, though it’s often voluntary. In some states, peer support recovery services are Medicaid reimbursable among certified practitioners.

Two examples of states with certification include:

  • Peer support recovery specialists working in Ohio must earn the Ohio Peer Recovery Supporter certification through the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. To qualify for this certification, you must either complete a course of in-person training or have at least three years of work or volunteer experience in peer recovery. Then, to earn the certification, you must complete 16 hours of online Academy courses that include study in ethics, human trafficking, and trauma-informed care, pass the OhioMHAS Peer Recovery Services exam, and pass a Bureau of Criminal Investigations background check.
  • Virginia offers the Certified Peer Recovery Specialist (CPRS) credential through the Virginia Peer Recovery Specialist Network. This credential is not required to practice as a peer support specialist, but many employers require it. To earn the CPRS credential, you’ll need to complete a 72-hour course of training (there are dozens of authorized trainers located throughout Virginia) and then earn at least 500 hours of volunteer or paid experience through peer-run centers, nonprofit organizations, or community organizations.

Doors to Wellbeing established a searchable database (through a grant provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) that provides state-specific information on certification requirements, peer specialization organizations, statewide certification bodies, training requirements, etc. Search here for training/certification requirements and opportunities available in your state.

National Certification

The National Certified Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS) credential through the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) is a widely recognized national credential in the field of peer recovery. While not required, many professionals in peer recovery choose to pursue it to advance their careers and boost their earning potential.

To qualify for the NCPRSS, you’ll need a high school diploma and at least two years of recovery under your belt. Then, you’ll need to submit proof of at least 200 hours of direct practice in a peer recovery support environment, either as a paid employee or volunteer.

To earn the credential, you must complete at least 60 hours of peer-recovery education and training in the following areas:

  • 48 hours in documentation, community/family education. Case management, crisis management, recovery-oriented systems of care, screening and intake, identification of indicators of substance abuse and/or co-occurring disorders for referral, services coordination, service panning, cultural awareness and/or humility, and basic pharmacology
  • 6 hours of ethics within the last six years
  • 6 hours of HIV/other pathogens within the last six years

In addition, you must satisfy the following:

  • Provide two references (one of which must be professional)
  • Receive a passing score on the NCPRSS exam

Salaries for Drug and Alcohol Peer Support Specialists

Salaries for drug and alcohol peer support specialists are often hard to nail down because of the swiftly evolving field. Many drug and alcohol peer support specialists also fall into the Bureau of Labor Statistics category of Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors. According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Drug and Alcohol Peer Support Specialists earned a median salary of $48,520 annually.

  • 25th percentile: $38,520
  • 50th percentile: $48,520
  • 75th percentile: $61,660
  • 90th percentile: $77,980

Drug and Alcohol Peer Support Specialists earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • Utah: $66,190
  • Alaska: $65,090
  • District of Columbia: $64,920
  • Rhode Island: $64,640
  • New Jersey: $63,430

The top-paying metropolitan areas for Drug and Alcohol Peer Support Specialists, according to mean salary, were:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $74,560
  • Carson City, NV: $73,200
  • Reno, NV: $71,690
  • George, UT: $70,630
  • Salt Lake City, UT: $68,370
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.