Through VA’s partnership with California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA), a variety of certification programs, educational opportunities, and specific jobs are available to suit the special experiences and unique relationships Veterans have.
And best of all, many opportunities are free and scholarships are available.
The Peer Certification Program
Among the many opportunities being offered is the innovative Peer Certification Program. A relatively new field, pilot programs and initiatives have shown this to be especially effective for delivering care to in-need Veterans. As for the peer specialists themselves, the experience can often be life-transforming.
Peer specialist candidates are trained in mental health practices and certified to help other Veterans in their recovery from substance abuse, depression, or PTSD. They work with therapists and case managers as part of a treatment team. Because those they help will be of similar experience and background, their clients may bond with them in ways they may not with others on their support team. Peer specialists will better relate to clients and act as a guide as they overcome their challenges. Peer support has proven to be especially effective in treating PTSD, depression, and addiction.
“Through training, peer support workers are able to compliment the roles of therapists, case managers, and other health professionals,” said Stephanie Ramos, education director at Cal Voices, an organization that works with human services agencies (including CalMHSA) providing peer support services. “Clients under their care see someone like them living a healthy and thriving life as someone they can model from. Their roles are vital to helping people move to recovery and stabilizing long-term. It’s truly the power of recovery in action.”
In September 2022, California joined 48 states in adding peer support specialists as a distinct Medicaid provider job type eligible for reimbursement. Gov. Newsom signed Senate Bill 803 into law and soon after standards and an exam were approved. Those interested in being a part of this program will be among the first generation of specialists to work in California.
In 2014, the White House initiated a pilot program for peer specialists to work with primary caregivers at VA medical centers, something that had never been done before. Veterans worked closely with their peers as a collaborative caregiver, providing personal attention, community, and accountability. Those in the program found that Veterans are much more likely to attempt and achieve their health goals because “Veterans respond to Veterans.”
As one of the caregivers in the program said, “The strength of this program is in our commonality as Veterans. Our connection is already in place…and we know how to hold each other up.”
Why Peer Support Specialists Are Needed at VA
Following active duty, all Veterans will experience a period of readjustment. Reintegrating with family, friends, and their community creates unique mental health challenges. Environmental stressors particular to the Veteran experience may include deployment combat exposure and readjusting to civilian life post-deployment.
While active-duty personnel have lower rates of alcohol use disorders than the general population, binge drinking was higher. Veterans are both more likely to use alcohol and are more than twice as likely to abuse alcohol when compared to the general population.
For those having served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, between 37 percent and 50 percent have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Symptoms may be expressed as reintegration stresses, sleep disturbances, and violence in relationships. Suicide rates are 1.5 times higher for Veterans than non-Veterans with an average of 20 Veterans dying by suicide every day.
Because peers share similar life experiences, these experiences and circumstances can create bonds with their clients. The Veteran client can feel like they’re in a relationship of equals. For the specialist, working with peers can be rewarding. It gives them an acute sense of purpose and makes their experiences, no matter how difficult, useful to others. For this reason, peer support specialists have been proven to be effective as role models and motivators.
“The first challenge VA faces working with Veterans struggling with addiction, homelessness or mental health issues is engaging them. Many of these Veterans have been repeatedly traumatized by their experience in the streets or at war. Peers, because of their Veteran status and unique lived experience, can be a vital bridge for Veterans into VA services,” said John Kuhn, acting medical center deputy director, West LA VA.
While the peer specialist relationship needn’t be directed necessarily toward substance abuse recovery, the methods are very much like a recovery-oriented system. Research shows having a sense of purpose is crucial to future wellness and positive outcomes.
In this way, a peer support relationship is effective for both sides of the relationship. Ramos says the moment of enlightenment for potential caregivers is when they come to understand that “their struggle can bring value to others.” And because of their experiences, she says, “Peers find healing, and purpose, for themselves by helping others. For all concerned, shared experience can be an extremely powerful tool.”
Success Through Collaboration
As a collaborator, peer support specialists are in the forefront of recovery-oriented care. Research suggests peers may be the most effective advocates for a Veteran’s long-term recovery. A study found that “peer support offers a level of acceptance, understanding, and validation not found in other professional relationships.” Overwhelmingly positive results have been seen for treating depression, including fewer psychiatric hospitalizations. This role can include wholistic health management, suicide prevention, and recovery from substance abuse and PTSD.
In counselling, empathy is a fundamental therapeutic tool. Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. For the client, they feel “this person gets me.” As part of a Veteran’s healthcare team, a peer support specialist can do more – they can match empathy with an inside understanding of the process in a way that’s irreplaceable.
Veteran Monte Daugharty, a peer support specialist working with West LA VA’s Care, Treatment, and Rehabilitative Services (CTRS) program, agrees that Veterans respond better to other Veterans. CTRS is an emergency shelter site on West LA VA grounds.
“I provide camaraderie to Vets, whether they be men or women. A lot of Vets miss that – the impact that happens in friendships with other Vets,” Daugharty said as he delivered a new mattress to a female Veteran living at the shelter site.
And not just with psychosocial support, but also navigating the VA services that are available to those that need them.
Recently Daugharty was able to help a Vietnam Veteran finally get connected to VA services and receive benefits he earned for his years of service. This Veteran went from receiving no aid to being 100 percent fully connected.
“When this client was able to access the services he needed, and use his benefits, his life changed,” Daugharty said. “Now, he can’t thank us enough. For me, that’s the reward.”
Some of CalMHSA’s training programs are free. For those that are not, scholarships may be available. To qualify for scholarships for this life-changing program, individuals must be identified by their county behavioral health department. Other programs endorsed by CalMHSA may be free or charge fees, and scholarships may be available for those as well.
To find out more, contact: email@example.com or call 916-376-7736.
Peer Support Specialist Certification Training
Approved by CalMHSA, Cal Voices’ Wise U Program offers free peer specialist training. This training meets the training requirements for both the California Medi-Cal Peer Support Specialist Certification and the National Certified Peer Specialist (NCPS) Credential. Cal Voices is a full-service peer training program that offers a wide array of career planning and educational opportunities including training, certification, counseling, field work, and more.
The Wise U interactive training course: An 80-hour interactive peer training course, offered quarterly and created to help in the development of peer support services, giving graduates job-related skills in substance-use and mental health service settings.
Peer Support Specialist Class: In a partnership with RI International, VA is currently offering online peer support training opportunities.
- Training is delivered 50 percent live and 50 percent pre-recorded
Learn more about the program here or contact Shelley.Lesley@riinternational.com or call 623-300-5514.