Can effective peer support be provided for individuals with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders?

A well-trained peer specialist who has experienced both mental health and substance use disorders can be an effective, positive support for people living with co-occurring disorders. In a 2017 article, O’Connell et al. published a body of evidence on the benefits of peer support that exceed those generated through conventional care, especially for individuals with co-occurring psychiatric and substance use disorders. The individuals in the peer support interaction group reported increases over the comparison groups in outpatient services in the short term and were able to sustain their reduction in alcohol use over the longer term.

Peer support has a long history in the treatment of and supports for people with substance use disorders. In the mental health field, peers have established a professional workforce of approximately 30,000 certified peer specialists. SAMHSA reported in 2014 that 23.3% of adults with serious mental illness have co-occurring substance use disorders. A similar percentage of certified peer specialists may have experienced both conditions and would be qualified to provide peer support for other individuals with co-occurring disorders. The skills for providing peer support for mental health and substance use disorders are essentially the same. Peer support services play crucial roles in helping individuals to advance their wellness and recoveries in the community and demonstrate significant roles in a wide variety of outcomes, including:

  • Providing knowledge about mental health and substance use disorders and their management;
  • Improvement in practical outcomes, e.g., employment, housing and finances;
  • Increasing ability to communicate with clinical providers; and
  • Reducing relapse and initiating recovery engagement when relapse occurs.

For more information, please refer to this Peer Services Toolkit published in 2014 by The College for Behavioral Health Leadership and funded by Optum.

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