“You cannot understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” The author of this American quote is lost to history, but the sentiment is not. Clinical staff at rehabilitation and psychiatric facilities across the country can come from various walks of life and hold various credentials. In fact, “the philosophical roots of peer learning can be found in theories of social learning and constructivism and from thinkers such as Vygotsky, Bandura, Piaget and Dewey and it assumes that learning is constructed during social interaction in collaboration with significant others (Peer learning and collaborative placement models in health care: a systematic review and qualitative synthesis of the literature, Markowski et al., 2020.)
Many great therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists have never struggled with addiction or mental health disorders. However, this analysis will posit that there is a distinct advantage to interacting with and being treated by rehab staff who have personally experienced their own struggles with these issues.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) outlines the clear advantages of incorporating peer support workers into treatment protocols for individuals who struggle with addiction. This analysis will expand on the thesis of HHS. It will assert that the benefits of clinically trained staff who can also offer peer support greatly enhance the efficacy and value of treatment and, ultimately, treatment outcomes.
The example set by a clinically trained peer on a rehab staff can be a powerful inspiration for those under their care. Overcoming an addiction or mental health disorder is a long and arduous process.
Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research found that, on average, in the United States, it takes five attempts at rehab to overcome addiction. Another study determined that 40-80% of individuals who undergo rehab for alcohol use will relapse at least once within a year. These odds are daunting. However, not all recovery facilities are created equal.
A clinically trained peer on staff in any role can provide important hope that recovery is possible for those who are struggling. As importantly, the principles and practices of the clinically trained peer staffer can be emulated by patients under their care. Studies have even found that health-promoting aspects, i.e., feeling safe, participation, support, and self-confidence were promoted by peer learning.
Moreover, there are tips and tricks to sobriety that can’t be found in any medical manual or book. Clinically trained peer staff provide the best of both worlds: being able to medically assist an individual in the process of recovering while also providing regular living proof that a client’s efforts are not in vain. The Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal validated these claims in a 2006 study that found peer-supported study participants experienced a greater sense of hope, among other positive sentiments.
Drug-Free and Judgment Free
Anecdotally, those who have experienced rehab or psychiatric hospitalization describe a feeling of dehumanization that often is self-reported to exist when interacting with clinical staff. This feeling is hard to empirically describe. Some describe it as judgmental, others as a sense of coldness or distance.
This exists in different ways and at different stages of the rehab (substance or psychiatric) process. For example, sitting in a locked unit under observation in an ER during the acute phase of drug withdrawal or psychosis can be incredibly dehumanizing.
The stigmatization of an individual as an “addict” can continue through all phases of treatment. Drug and Alcohol Dependence treats the idea that healthcare professionals exhibit an empirically explicit negative bias towards individuals with substance use disorder (SUD) as a settled precedent.
A study published in World Psychiatry elucidated the fact that peer support during treatment increased feelings of empathy and acceptance in clients. SAMSHA cites multiple additional research sources supporting this finding. It would appear that rehab staff are less likely to judge the situations and experiences of those they treat. The feelings of acceptance, dignity, and humanity that are imbued by peer clinical staff likely precipitate a superior treatment experience.
Understanding the Process
The empathy of peer clinical staff is rooted in the prescient experiences of their past. A peer clinical staff member will likely understand the various phases of mental illness or addiction treatment. It is virtually impossible to relate fully to these experiences unless an individual has been subject to them. This includes everything from intervention to inpatient hospital admission or detox to rehab to outpatient and beyond.
The recovery community is an entire constellation of dynamic programs, treatments, and experiences. Typical clinical staff members will only have experience with certain aspects of this constellation. Even then, it’s virtually impossible to extrinsically understand what it’s like to have a brain that isn’t typical – a key experiential component of any stage of the process.
A peer clinical staff member may be able to relate to simple yet difficult experiences, such as being medicated on an antipsychotic, an antidepressant, or a benzodiazepine. Peer clinical staff can synergize their medical training with their background to become an incredibly valuable asset in shepherding individuals along their respective recovery journeys.
Research shows that peer support workers have increasingly essential roles in developing recovery-oriented services. This is likely because of the tremendous insight they bring to the task. Research suggests that a facility employing clinically trained peers likely provides an even increased quality of service delivery. This is the result of a superior understanding of both the medical and non-medical aspects of the diseases of mental illness or addiction.
A Clear Advantage
Empirical, anecdotal, and logical evidence all point to the enhanced efficacy of mental illness or addiction treatment in the presence of peer support. A less studied but potentially important avenue of future research is the exploration of the empirically measurable amplified benefit of peer facility staff, who have both clinical training and personal experience, on treatment outcomes. Approximately 90% of Lantana Recovery’s treatment staff can be considered “peers.” This analysis suggests that this unique programmatic attribute may be an important contributing factor to the impressive treatment outcomes Lantana has achieved.
Lantana Recovery understands that rehab may seem like a daunting experience. You may be wondering how you will be viewed by staff. You may worry that rehab will simply be a waste of time based on the prevailing treatment outcome nationwide. Know that Lantana Recovery’s approach, our staff, our programs, and ultimately our outcomes are fundamentally different. Our staff has a deep and unabiding respect for every person who walks through our doors; it composes an important note in the symphony of treatment protocols we engage in clinically. What’s the secret? A deep bench of individuals who combine cutting-edge knowledge from personal experience.