Peer Support Specialists Enhance Mental Health, Substance Use Recovery

Lesa Mutters, Cherry’s Hope and Wellness Center program director, at Cherry Hospital. Photo courtesy Lesa Mutters

Lesa Mutters, Cherry’s Hope and Wellness Center program director, at Cherry Hospital. Photo courtesy Lesa Mutters.

Sept. 19, 2019 – To assist in the recovery of individuals with mental health and substance use disorders, peer support specialists are being utilized more frequently throughout North Carolina and as part of programs and facilities operated by the NC Department of Health and Human Services.

A peer support specialist participates in treatment teams, much like an advisor, and offers guidance based on lessons they have learned from their own recovery journeys. Rather than just relying on medical experts, treatment teams include peer support specialists because they can connect to patients differently than traditional treatment providers. These individuals have experienced firsthand the difficulties of recovery and can use that lived experience to help others.

The three psychiatric hospitals operated by DHHS employ peer support specialists to enhance the effectiveness of treatment teams. Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro is the first state-run psychiatric hospital in North Carolina to add certified mental health peer support specialists to its staff. The hospital has five peers who are integrated throughout the hospital.

“The expansion of the peer support program has improved the overall patient experience at our hospital in countless ways. We consistently rely on the peer staff's experience and input to guide us in decision-making and problem-solving,” said Lesa Mutters, Cherry Hospital Hope & Wellness Center Programming Director. “We cannot place a value on the experience they bring to the table and the positive impact they have on our organization.”

There are currently 3,780 peer support specialists in North Carolina. To become a peer support specialist, they must be over the age of 18 and living in recovery from mental health/substance use disorders. They must have completed required certification training in skills to offer support for recovery and adhere to a code of ethics. Recertification is required every two years.

Certified Peer Support Specialists are employed in a variety of settings, including Local Management Entity-Managed Care Organizations (LME-MCOs), mental health and substance use disorder providers, peer-run organizations, private and DHHS-run psychiatric hospitals and alcohol and drug abuse treatment centers and the state’s piloted peer respite center. This approach to treatment is considered a people-focused strategy to turn the tide on the opioid epidemic, a top priority of Governor Roy Cooper and the NC Department of Health and Human Services.

At the DHHS-operated Julian F. Keith (JFK) Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Black Mountain, there are four peer support specialists who work with patients to teach them recovery management skills and connect them with community resources. JFK also employs two full-time “peer bridgers” who connect individuals to their next treatment provider. To further recovery success, JFK also connects patients to transitional housing services, which are also staffed with peer support specialists to continue to offer guidance to people in recovery.

Central Regional Hospital in Butner and Broughton Hospital in Morganton also have peer support teams. For example, Broughton Hospital hosts recovery support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, that are led by peers who are simultaneously receiving mental health care and working through their own challenges with substance use disorders.

DHHS is also supporting the use of peer support specialists outside of its own facilities. In 2018, DHHS and the North Carolina Healthcare Association (NCHA) awarded grants to six North Carolina emergency departments. The grants enabled participating hospitals to embed certified peer support specialists in their emergency departments to connect patients to treatment, recovery and harm reduction supports.

Furthermore, the Department is working to support the peer support specialist workforce. The Department’s Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services has partnered with the UNC Behavioral Health Springboard at UNC-Chapel Hill to implement course development for the field as it evolves.

Author: Lindsay K. Saunders