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Peer Recovery Specialist – The Secret Weapon

Kyle Brewer, BS, PRPS; Peer Specialist Program Manager; NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals

The opioid epidemic has sadly claimed the lives of thousands of Americans. The problem is complex, and, as a nation and a state, we didn’t arrive here overnight. Overprescribing and misinformation about addiction and stigma are just a few of the contributing factors. As with COVID-19, we have seen that no one is exempt from this issue. It impacts every socioeconomic background, race, religion, gender, and geographic location. Every level of society has been and will continue to be affected by the opioid epidemic. But, working together, we find hope.

During my freshman year of college, I had my wisdom teeth removed. As is commonplace, I received a prescription of opioids after the procedure. Early on, I began taking Oxycodone as prescribed to dull the pain from the surgery. This quickly escalated to calling-in refills and over two months, I developed a tolerance for the drug needing more and more of the medication to achieve the desired effect. By the time I was out of refills, I was trapped in the vicious cycle of opioid addiction. That one Oxycodone prescription would eventually lead me to homelessness and a life controlled by a needle full of heroin or other prescription opioids. Over the next 10 years of my life, I would spend thousands of dollars on opioids and destroy every aspect of my life. By the grace of God that was not the end of my story.

Recovery may seem like a simple word but for an individual with a substance use and/or mental health disorder the word “recovery” is much greater than any other word in their vocabulary. I personally found recovery through a long-term faith-based program. Recovery is not about a particular program, pathway, or amount of time. Recovery does not have a finish line because recovery is not just a thought or an action. Recovery is a lifestyle for a lifetime. When faced with the task of changing everything about your life it’s easy to feel alone, scared, and uncertain. That is why people typically don’t find and sustain recovery in isolation. It requires a supportive community working together to accomplish a common goal.

And now the good news! Communities do not have to do this alone. All across the state, communities are being armed with a secret weapon – Peer Recovery Specialist(s). A Peer Recovery Specialist is someone who has personal experience with drug addiction and/or mental health challenges. The unique-lived experience is combined with training, education, supervision, and ethics.

Relationships are a very important part of life and recovery. Trust and mutual respect are often fundamental to the foundation of a successful relationship. Peer support is rooted in relationships that are founded on the principles of equality, mutuality, and shared experience. It is this foundation that enables a peer recovery specialist to walk alongside someone, empower them to make their own choices, and model a life of recovery.

The State of Arkansas is blazing a trail equipping and empowering the recovery community to take their past and give it purpose through peer recovery. Peer Recovery Specialists are a powerful weapon against the opioid epidemic. They are also a vital and important resource for employers across the state.

For the first time in the State of Arkansas, individuals with lived experience have direct involvement in the development and administration of a peer support credentialing program. The Arkansas Peer Specialist Program (APSP) is a collaborative effort between NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals, and the State of Arkansas that streamlines each step of the credentialing process, producing highly trained and knowledgeable peer specialists and creating a one-stop shop for all peer credentialing needs.

APSP is an innovative three-tiered credentialing process developed with involvement of peer specialists at every level of the application and certification process that provides an individual the opportunity to progress through the core, advanced, and supervisory levels of the Arkansas Model. Through this model, peers can climb the career ladder, to hold the Arkansas Core Peer Recovery Specialist (PR) credential, the Arkansas Advanced Peer Recovery Specialist (APR) credential, and the Arkansas Peer Recovery Peer Supervisor (PRPS) credential. Each level of this career ladder has its own training, education, experience, and supervisory requirements designed to produce highly trained and knowledgeable Peer Recovery Specialists.

Before 2017, peer recovery for substance use disorders was virtually non-existent in Arkansas. Within a year, as the opioid epidemic exponentially grew, the peer recovery field also grew. Arkansas used federal funding to combat the opioid epidemic supporting the creation of the Arkansas Model, which was developed by a group of recovering individuals who envisioned dynamic change within our behavioral health system.

As the Arkansas Model developed into a comprehensive peer career ladder, it became clear that it required an innovative and well-developed system to certify and supervise each level. So, in January 2021, the State of Arkansas partnered with NAADAC to develop and manage the application and certification process – as well as implement a supervisory system and peer ethics review process – for all three levels of the Arkansas Model. This partnership led to the birth of the Arkansas Peer Specialist Program as it is known and utilized today.

NAADAC is excited about the growth of qualified, credentialed, and supervised peer specialists in Arkansas, and looks forward to helping expand the program so that it can be replicated in other states to better standardize and develop a high level of training, education, and state credentialing structures for peer specialists across the country.

Peer Recovery Specialists are currently being utilized by communities across the state in a variety of settings and capacities. Hospitals, emergency departments, jails, treatment centers, outpatient clinics, re-entry programs, youth services and police departments are a few places that peer specialists are being utilized to positively impact the community and help others find and sustain a life of recovery.

Since 2018, the State of Arkansas has provided core peer recovery specialist training for over 400 Arkansans, advanced peer recovery specialist training for over 50 Arkansans and peer recovery supervisor training for 10 Arkansans. This led to the growth of the peer workforce and an increased demand for peer specialists. There are currently over 20 counties in the State of Arkansas that have 0 trained peer specialists. It is imperative that this resource is made available to all areas in Arkansas including the most rural parts of the state.

Peer Recovery Specialists are also valuable to employers and can uniquely speak to employees about recovery options and support networks available to them. I encourage Arkansas employers to consider utilizing peer specialists in their organization or as part of their Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Employers can help bridge this gap for their employees and through this collaborative approach, can help save and change lives.

If you are a person with two years of recovery from a substance use and/or a mental health disorder, I encourage you to consider taking your experience and turning it into a career. To learn more about the Arkansas Peer Specialist Program, including eligibility requirements and details about the application process, please visit www.naadac.org/arkansas-peer-specialist-program or contact me at kbrewer@naadac.org.

Need help?

If you or someone that you care about is dealing with opioid-use or substance-use disorder, please reach out and seek treatment. Find help by contacting the national drug addiction helpline (24/7/365) at 1-800-644-HELP (4357) or the Arkansas Mental Health & Addiction Support Line at 1-844-763-0198.