Men and Women sitting in circle

The Essential Role of Peer Support for SUD Recovery

The path from initiating treatment for addiction can feel lonely and frightening. To help, many organizations are partnering with individuals who have gone through treatment themselves to ensure that new clients with substance use disorder have someone to turn to—someone who has been through a similar experience.

Research has shown that when an individual with substance use disorder has support from a peer, they have increased rates of treatment initiation, lower dropout rates, heightened community support, and better reintegration into the community after treatment.

What are Peer Support Services?

Peer support services are delivered by individuals who are in recovery themselves from substance use disorder. Peers can provide non-clinical, strength-based support due to their own recovery and lived experience. They share their lived experiences and give practical guidance without judgment.

In addition to support received through therapists and case managers, peer support services can add a layer that complements and strengthens a recovery team. Peers are often employed to mentor and educate others through advocating for people in recovery, skill-building, leading recovery groups, goal setting,  recovery plan creation, providing resources, and building community and relationships[1].

The Benefits of Peer Support for People with SUD

  • Shared Lived Experience

Peers are influential in the outcome of an individual in treatment due to their shared lived experiences with substance use. They can share stories of their own recovery, their triumphs and mistakes, and how they balance and repair the relationships in their lives. It may have benefits for the peer support specialist, as well – many programs encourage the idea of sharing experiences as a way to sustain long-lasting recovery.

  • Collaborative Relationship

Substance use is often isolating.  People often have fewer social networks—especially healthy ones. There also tends to be higher rates of domestic violence and relationship problems, which makes it hard for an individual struggling with substance use disorder to find a way out or, at the very least, find a friend to lean on.

Peers offer a supportive, collaborative relationship for those undergoing treatment and those in recovery. Research has shown that those who have supportive relationships with family, friends, and peers are more likely to maintain sobriety[2].

  • Navigate the Barriers to Treatment

Many individuals with substance use disorder find it hard to step out of their day-to-day lives and get treatment because of the barriers that stand in their way.

Peers can help manage waitlists for treatment facilities and provide groups and other care opportunities until a person can be placed. They can help individuals overcome the barriers of unemployment, housing insecurity, and the child welfare system to find a treatment program best suited for them by providing outreach, engagement, and resources.

Finding Peer Support through Technology

While in-person peer support was often available before the pandemic, much of this support became unavailable as stay-at-home orders were put in place.  This left many people with substance use disorder struggling.  To compensate, telehealth and technology became much more pervasive and available, even for peer support services – giving support to individuals at their fingertips.

The research[6] behind patient success when using health technology, like phone apps, showed that individuals feel more competent because it’s an easy-to-use tool, feel connected to others due to the ability to chat and share with others, and they feel more internally motivated.

The Bottom Line

Peer support services are available throughout the recovery journey, even long after an individual has finished intensive inpatient treatment. These services can give individuals in recovery a supportive, non-judgmental relationship that they may be lacking in their lives.