Being Helpful: Professional Expertise or Lived Experience?

Posted by tbdsolution on 12:25 PM

In behavioral health treatment, the pendulum of personal and professional experience has slowly swung from side to side for the past century. From Alcoholics Anonymous to the advent of Vet Centers for returning Vietnam veterans, peers have exemplified the power of empathy by supporting one another through shared life events. Their firsthand knowledge helps to bridge the chasm of fear that clients carry that they will not be truly understood.

While peer support has grown and evolved, so, too, have the clinical professions and their effectiveness. Identifying and implementing best practices in therapeutic settings have helped change the face of clinical services, from a nebulous, undefined journey through the subconscious to a meaningful service that delivers results.

As recently as 5 years ago, graduate training programs in fields such as psychology, counseling, and social work did not give substantial attention to peer support or sharing personal experiences as an effective treatment tool, instead advocating an approach that all but extinguished self-disclosure in a therapeutic setting due to fears of transference and crossing professional boundaries.

Empirical studies that validated the tools and methods of clinical professionals are now affirming the effectiveness of peer supports in treatment settings, demonstrating similar outcomes to their more educated constituents. In the last 10 years, many states have formalized the training and certification process for peer support specialists, bringing a level of credibility to their work that has not previously been seen. To make matters more complex, clinical professionals and peer supports are now working side-by-side in recovery-oriented systems of care, forcing both parties to recognize one another’s skills while working together to provide effective treatment.

In a healthy recovery-oriented treatment environment, clinicians and peer supports would complement one another in doing what is most helpful for the client: supporting their recovery. With all of the changes that have occurred in both fields, what will the next 100 years bring?