Building and Sustaining Peer Support in Denver: Key Concerns, Supports, and Insights 

The positive impact of peer support — having someone with lived experience trained to support people with mental health and/or substance misuse challenges — has been widely researched and well documented. Shared experiences and understanding between individuals who have traversed similar paths fosters trust, reduces stigma, and instills hope in those seeking assistance. By bridging the gap between professional assistance and personal understanding, peer support not only enhances recovery outcomes but also cultivates a sense of community, resilience, and empowerment, demonstrating that healing is not a solitary journey but a collective effort. 

 Unfortunately, positions in this emerging field are often misunderstood, underpaid, and not well supported by their employers, resulting in high turnover rates after only a few years.  This blog is a follow-up resource from the Caring for Denver’s 2023 community discussion on peer support. It addresses key concerns, supports, and insights to build and sustain a healthy peer support network in Denver.  

Q: How can someone advocate for accessible training and credentialing opportunities, livable wages, and sustainable funding for peer support programs? 

A: There are several avenues for involvement in Colorado’s advocacy efforts. The Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention offers a monthly Recovery Workgroup dedicated to supporting the peer support workforce, welcoming new members. The Colorado Provider’s Association provides volunteering and advocacy opportunities. Additionally, the Behavioral Health Administration hosts quarterly Peer Support Collaborative Meetings and Peer Steering Committee Meetings. These platforms serve as vital channels for individuals to actively contribute to strengthening and advancing the peer support field in Colorado. 

Q: What is the newly formed Peer Support Association? What does it plan on doing and how will it unite the peer support workforce?  

A: The Colorado Association of Peer Support Professionals seeks to elevate and advance the rising peer support workforce by providing opportunities for career development, empowering members to unite in advocacy, and strengthening connections between Peer Support Professionals (PSP) across the state. The Association is the leading voice and community for Peer Support Professionals (PSPs) in the state of Colorado, uniting individuals dedicated to the important work of peer support and recovery.  

Click here for more information.  

Q: How is equity demonstrated? What are some examples of what equity means in peer support? How can organizations recruit more people of color in peer support positions?  

A: Organizations should be focused on recruitment AND retention, which includes investigating how they are considering diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging for their staff in any position, but especially for peer support—who face stigma and marginalization more than other roles. Diversity in the behavioral health workforce is an important issue that has multiple strategies for intervening, including considering inequities built into schooling, apprenticeship, certification systems and the lack of support for supervisors and mentors of color. Recruiting a diverse workforce is not enough if staff are not paid livable wages and able to work in safe and affirming workplaces.  

Q: Do you have any update on your efforts to help the City create a more formalized classification for Peers? 

A: With funding support from Caring for Denver foundation, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment is actively hiring a Peer Support Workforce Specialist who will serve as a subject matter expert and convener to support the action steps identified during the City’s yearlong, multi-agency project to asses and then create an action plan for peer support staff working at the City and County of Denver. The City and County of Denver has had an HR classification for “Peer Navigators” since 2019 and was one of the first municipalities in the country to create this type of classification. The City’s work now is getting more in line with best practices and advocating for levels and more opportunities for advancement for peer support staff working at the City. The Peer Support Workforce Specialist will be tasked with trying to move these action steps forward. 

Q: What is the City’s stance on Peer Professionals gaining state and national certifications to help legitimize and elevate the Peer Support Workforce within the City? 

A: The City was awarded a one-time Behavioral Health Administration grant to offer training and scholarships for current peer support workers at the city to eliminate barriers for certification. The grant for scholarships will help with the cost of certifications, exams, registration, and study materials. They are also looking to support those who have not gotten their certification yet. The City is partnering with Colorado Mental Wellness Network to fill in the gaps and hopes to create some of their own training for city specific type jobs. This training will look like 60 hours of in-house training then receiving a scholarship for the exam. Ultimately, the City is trying to break down certification barriers to build the peer support workforce and train others to become peer support workers. Although being a certified peer support specialist is helpful to show your commitment to the profession, it is not a requirement for peer support roles at the City because they recognize it is expensive and not everyone has had the ability to meet the requirements (e.g. 500 hours in a previous role with supervision, exam registration, 60 hours of training, etc.) before applying for a position. 

Q: What are some strategies for growing our peer program? 

A: Be sure to make data-driven decisions when expanding peer programs. By assessing the utilization of current peers, organizations can grow meaningfully. Evaluation of existing peers helps identify valuable areas for expansion, aligning with specific programs, foundations, and grant funding. The incorporation of growth opportunities, such as creating lead peer support specialist roles, facilitates career advancement and professional development, enhancing the overall effectiveness of peer support programs. 

Q: How do you screen peer support applicants to ensure they are far enough along in their recovery to provide support to others without being triggered? 

A: To ensure applicants are well along in their recovery journey, it is crucial to ask meaningful questions and avoid illegal inquiries into mental health and substance use during interviews. Adopting an equitable approach by treating peer supporters like other staff members is essential. Questions should be designed to understand the applicant’s motivations for engaging in this work, allowing them opportunities to share their lived experience and recovery journey.  

It’s also important to have a clear and concise definition about what peer support is. You can incorporate the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s core competencies for peer workers into job descriptions to clarify the role’s nature. Normalizing experiences of trauma, reframing interview questions to focus on coping tools and recovery experiences, and creating a safe space during interviews are advocated practices.  

For example, at Colorado Village Collaborative, interviews are framed with introductions, enabling panel interviewers to share their stories and how they entered the field, fostering a safe and inclusive atmosphere. Creating a safe space during interviews, emphasizing shared experiences without delving into diagnoses, and educating the interview panel on the broader stigma associated with peer support specialists contribute to a more inclusive and supportive screening process.  

Examples of potential interview questions:  

  • Tell me why you think you are a good fit for this role.  
  • How do you regulate back to baseline? 
  • What are the tools you use when faced with difficult challenges?  
  • What does recovery look like for you?  
  • Do you have examples of working with individuals facing life-altering trauma?  

Note: See if interviewees are sharing in a way that comes from a strength-based perspective.  

Q: How do you delineate between case management and peer support activities and expectations? 

Q: Any Insights on how other agencies have involved their Human Resources Departments to support hiring and training for peer supporters? 

A: Recruiters should be educated on specific phone screening criteria, including minimum requirements and the role’s importance. Conversations with HR representatives underscore the need to dispel misconceptions, such as viewing a criminal background as a disqualifying factor rather than a plus. Additionally, there’s a call for recruiters to be trained in recognizing various resume formats, prioritizing peer support experience and volunteer work over potential gaps in work history.  

Q: How do people interested in peer support become involved? 

A: Volunteer at an organization that has peer support and learn more about it. Check out the Colorado Association of Peer Support Professionals to learn more. The Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) has a quarterly peer support group (contact cdhs_bha_wfd@cdhs.state.co.us for more information), and they’re putting together recovery community organization meetings.  Colorado Mental Wellness Network’s newsletter and Caring for Denver Foundation’s social media offers opportunities as well.  

Q: Is there an established manual for peer support training? 

A: Certainly. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s core competencies and the National Association of Peer Supporters provide comprehensive guidelines for peer supporters and supervisors, covering both substance misuse treatment and mental health. Additionally, Colorado Providers Association‘s website offers a specific code of ethics.  

Q: What are some recommended practices for training and ongoing education for peer supporters? 

A: To best support the initial training of aspiring peer supporters or provide ongoing education for current trained peer supporters, organizations should enable these individuals to undergo training during paid working hours and, if feasible, cover the associated training costs. Colorado Mental Wellness Network organizes quarterly peer networking events and is transitioning to a monthly schedule. To enhance your knowledge and learn from others, consider joining this network to participate in ongoing learning opportunities. 

Organizations can partner with other entities to create a peer network themselves that facilitates shared learning among peers and addresses common challenges encountered in the field. Initial training options for aspiring peer support professionals may include the peer support training offered by Colorado Mental Wellness Network or the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) training, particularly for roles centered on addiction recovery. Relevant continuing education trainings include, but are not limited to, topics such as motivational interviewing, de-escalation training, and active listening.  

All peer supporters should be trained, or have the opportunity for training, to ensure they meet the specific requirements of the role. Also, facilitators should have a thorough understanding of the work, as inadequate training is a disservice to both the peer supporters and the organization.  The consensus is that accredited peer support training organizations or trainers should handle the training process, discouraging attempts to create programs from scratch by those unfamiliar with the nuances of peer support. Comprehensive training, which familiarizes both the peer supporter and their supervisor with the professional standards and guidelines of peer support while supporting their ongoing professional growth, is crucial for the success and effectiveness of a peer support staff member. 

Q: How can an organization create a sustainable environment for peer supporters to promote self-care, professional development, and career advancement?  

A: Creating a sustainable and supportive environment for peer supporters involves several key elements. To start, it’s crucial to treat peer supporters equally alongside other employees, providing essential resources such as training, professional development, consistent supervision, and dedicated time for debriefing and addressing challenges.  

Recognizing the demanding nature of their role, there should be a concerted effort to create a supportive atmosphere that allows reflection on challenging situations and encourages alternative approaches for improvement. Employers should honor and support self-care, wellness, and recovery by offering peer support staff paid time off to explore strategies for self-care and coping. Building a culture of wellness within the organization involves recognizing the unique challenges and expertise of peer supporters.  

Additionally, integrating professional development opportunities as a fundamental part of the job, including paid time for attending quarterly networking, webinars, and other relevant trainings, ensures continuous growth and skill enhancement. Beyond these fundamentals, it’s essential to seamlessly integrate training and support into the workweek, provide a living and thriving wage, and encourage the exploration of diverse interests within peer support roles. Your peer support staff will have multifaceted skills. Make sure there’s opportunities in job satisfaction, growth, and fulfillment by really leaning into people’s skills and expertise. For more insight, leverage opportunities to look within peer-run organizations and their success stories, such as the Colorado Village Collaborative.  

Thank you for exploring the dynamic landscape of peer support. If you have further questions, seek clarification, or wish to connect with the panelists, please feel free to reach out.  

Cuica Montoya, Colorado Village Collaborative —cuica@covillageco.org 

Elise Matatall, Denver Department of Public Health—Elise.Matatall@denvergov.org 

Hope Hyatt, Colorado Mental Wellness Network—hope@cmwn.org 

Tim Cortez, Caring for Denver Foundation—tim@caring4denver.org 

We look forward to continuing the conversation with you. Together, we can contribute to building and sustaining a thriving peer support workforce in Denver.