Community-based behavioral health services must constantly evolve in order to effectively meet the needs of individuals and families who are living with either mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Recently, there has been a significant movement across the country to utilize “peers” in delivery of those services. “Peer supports” use trained and certified consumers to help provide treatment and support to individuals in need of care.

This trend has actually been a standard practice at NRVCS for more than a decade. In fact, NRVCS has employed several “peer specialists” to work in a variety of the agency’s programs over the past 15 years and plans are for those numbers to grow.

“Peer Supporters help build relationship and trust with our clients based on their own lived experiences,” notes Angela Scott, a PACT (Program for Assertive Community Treatment) team supervisor with NRVCS. “We’ve routinely seen how successful that element of care can be.”

Scott says expanding peer supports will not only allow NRVCS to more fully engage new clients, but to also address the unmet needs of clients who are already being served by the agency.

“We believe that peer supports are a doorway that will add more tools, more trust and eventually lead to more successful outcomes for both our clients and staff,” adds Scott.

Scott went on to say that NRVCS is currently developing a system for inclusion of Peer Recovery Supports into every aspect of programming and service delivery, with the goal of eventually having a Peer Support Specialist in each NRVCS program.

Virginia provides a single Peer Recovery Specialist Certification for both mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Individuals who are in recovery from a mental illness or substance use disorder will be eligible to apply to become certified. Scott explains that peer supports will likely be recognized as a billable service by Medicaid within the next two to four years.

The two key elements of this initiative are recovery and hope. “Recovery” is the process of gaining control over one’s life and the direction that person wants life to go after being given a psychiatric or substance diagnosis. The process of recovery includes: improving health and wellness, increasing self-direction, learning new skills, developing supports and accessing resources to increase one’s capacity for success. “Hope” in this sense, is the belief that one has the ability and the opportunity to engage in the recovery process. This process is person-centered, strengths-based, nonlinear and holistic and includes the concepts of self-direction, empowerment, and personal responsibility.

NRVCS has developed a Peer Supports Administrative Workgroup to help prepare for these changes. Scott, a member of the Workgroup, says they are tracking the development of Virginia’s Certified Peer Specialist Training Core Curriculum, and its implementation, which includes staff already in Peer Supporter positions. The agency’s Peer Supporter group meets twice monthly to discuss the progress of NRVCS’ implementation plan, including certification, job descriptions, and the unique staff experiences of Peer Supports.

“I am enjoying being a part of this movement,” Scott adds. “It is a throwback to almost 30 years ago here, when the ‘consumer’ perspective and input first became a priority.”