Mental health peer specialists develop peer-to-peer relationships of trust with clients to improve their health and well-being, functioning in ways similar to community health workers. Although the number of peer specialists in use has been increasing, their role in care teams is less defined than that of the community health worker.
This qualitative study explored how the peer specialist role is defined across different stakeholder groups, the expectations for this role and how the peer specialist is utilized and integrated across different types of mental health services. Data were collected through interviews and focus groups conducted in Massachusetts with peer specialists (N = 44), their supervisors (N = 14) and clients (N = 10) between September 2009 and January 2011. A consensus coding approach was used and all data outputs were reviewed by the entire team to identify themes.
Peer specialists reported that their most important role is to develop relationships with clients and that having lived mental health experience is a key element in creating that bond. They also indicated that educating staff about the recovery model and peer role is another important function. However, they often felt a lack of clarity about their role within their organisation and care team. Supervisors valued the unique experience that peer specialists bring to an organisation. However, without a defined set of expectations for this role, they struggled with training, guiding and evaluating their peer specialist staff. Clients reported that the shared lived experience is important for the relationship and that working with a peer specialist has improved their mental health. With increasing support for person-centred integrated healthcare delivery models, the demand for mental health peer specialist services will probably increase. Therefore, clearer role definition, as well as workforce development focused on team orientation, is necessary for peer specialists to be fully integrated and supported in care teams.