Supervision of Peer Specialists

Supervisors play a key role in effective integration of peers into workplaces and growth of peer staff. Many peer specialists are employed in peer-run organizations that generally have a clear understanding of, and a commitment to, the unique and important role of peer support services. However, with the expansion of the peer specialist workforce have come some growing pains related to supervision of peer staff.

Some believe that peer supervision is no different than supervision of any other staff member, so those supervisory guidelines already in place for other employees would be identical for peer support specialists. Others believe that there are special aspects to supervision of peer support staff.  For example, in the case of peer support services funded through Medicaid, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued guidance to states requiring supervision of peer support staff by “a competent mental health professional (as defined by the State).”

Some advocates take issue with the idea that some special consideration is needed for the peer workforce, bristling at the notion that special structures must be in place for employees simply because they have personal lived experience with a mental health condition. Yet other leaders report that, because challenges are often present when peer specialists go to work in organizations providing traditional mental health services and are supervised by clinicians or other non-peers, special supervisory guidelines aren’t so much about the mental health condition, but about ensuring consistency and fairness related to a new, and variously understood, workforce. Indeed, non-peer supervisors may have little understanding of the role of peer support services, and/or they may act based on misconceptions about peer support roles, or even preconceived notions about the abilities of people with mental health conditions themselves. Because issues often arise, even in the most well-meaning workplaces, the special consideration of supervisory knowledge, structure, and training may be wise.

Sometimes, supervisory issues are not the sole challenge to integration of peers into various different settings. In many instances, historical models of service delivery that have an “us-them” or hierarchical framework can create barriers to peer specialists’ contributions. Additionally, lingering—even subconscious—stigma can sometimes cause colleagues and supervisors of peers to doubt or prematurely limit the capabilities of the peer specialist. So some education about lived experience of mental health conditions, the history of and evidence for peer-based services, and even a cultural-competency approach to integration can all be incredibly useful.

Thankfully, for organizations looking to integrate and/or better supervise and support peer specialists, there are a wide array of tools and resources like these

Watch video to learn tips on supervision from peers to supervisors.