Presented by State of Alaska Department of Health
When he was a counselor, Michael Cunningham fielded a lot of questions about his own experiences with drugs and alcohol. At the time, he didn’t share much of his story with clients.
But now, as a peer support professional, relating to clients through their substance use challenges is a key part of his practice.
“There was always that curiosity with clients,” he said. “And on the other side of addiction, I understand why. Because that immediately means they can relate. If somebody hasn’t overcome anything, I’m not going to take their advice on it.”
Cunningham works on the peer support team at Volunteers of America Alaska, a youth social services organization based in Anchorage.
His is one of many groups leaning into the power of peer support. Agencies providing peer support programs connect people in the early stages of treatment with a peer in recovery who can help play a vital role in supporting the client on their journey. Peer support programs have existed in Alaska for many years, but Alaska launched its first Peer Support Professional certification program in 2020.
Peer support professionals share what they’ve gone through, what they’ve learned, and refer clients to the services that have worked for them and people in their lives. They connect with clients as equals with similar lived experience.
After Alaska’s certification program began, Cunningham’s organization started hiring peer support staff.
“After about a month or two into it, we decided that we needed a lot more peer support,” he said. “The clients were easily able to relate to them and connect to them and build that rapport right away.”
Today, more than 120 peer support professionals are certified in Alaska, said Crystal Smith, who coordinates the program for the Alaska Department of Health, Division of Behavioral Health.
Those professionals fall under several tiers, from Associate to Peer Support III. Traditional Peer Support is a culturally focused program geared toward Alaska Native clients, integrating traditional healing into the peer support practice.
“It’s a way to incorporate heritage and culture that is so important in the recovery process for many Alaska Native people,” Smith said.
Certifications last two years and peer support professionals can get trained online, meaning people across Alaska can get certified without leaving their communities. All trainees take a 40-hour core training in addition to courses in ethics, confidentiality and related health topics.
‘It’s a powerful position’: How getting groceries can aide recovery
James Savage, of Wasilla, was one of the first peer support professionals certified in Alaska.
Savage said he was hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol before becoming sober and a professional in the field. Today, he’s director of operations for True North Recovery, a substance use treatment facility in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. He said most of the 100 staff with True North have lived experience that is relevant to those on the path of recovery.
“Watching the lights come on for somebody else and see them regain control of their life is better than anything I’ve ever found in the bottom of a bottle or the bottom of a bag,” he said. “It’s absolutely amazing to see somebody broken, hopeless, and alone come back and realize that their life has value and meaning.”
The joy of peer support is that it’s fluid, Savage said. Support can happen anywhere. Professionals can meet clients at appointments, while running errands, or at local parks. There’s no timeline for, or expiration date on, a peer support relationship.
Peer support professionals can often be more real with their clients than in a standard counseling setting, Cunningham said.
“We go out and walk through Walmart, talk about life,” he said. “They’re getting groceries while we’re spending time with them. It’s a powerful position.”
Not everyone entering a peer support program might be ready, at that moment, to start their journey to recovery. That’s the case for some of Cunningham’s young clients, ranging in age from 14 to 24 years old, who may not have experienced the deepest depths of addiction, he said.
Even if the client isn’t ready in that moment to start with recovery, they might be moved by the experience of their mentor, he said.
“Through the years you never know what seed is going to be planted with that client, what they’ll remember later on when it’s their time, their moment,” Cunningham said.
The act of planting seeds may even be more poignant for youth clients than conventional therapy, he said, which often requires a deeper degree of introspection from clients.
Transforming addiction treatment in Alaska
Maintaining boundaries between peer support professionals and their clients is an important part of the process. Smith said certified peer supports are trained so that they don’t overshare or cause additional harm.
“They have to know when to tell their story, how to tell their story, and how much of their story they should tell,” she said.
Savage said not everyone will take that same path, but at the core, intimate details about addiction can only be understood by those with lived experience.
“It’s things that are really even hard to articulate to someone or to a group of people that have never been through it,” he said.
Proponents of peer support say it’s changing the field of treatment services in profound and lasting ways.
Smith said she receives calls from organizations starting and expanding their own peer support programs all the time, both for substance use disorder treatment, and for those grappling with other mental and physical health issues.
In 2023, Alaska’s first-ever recertification for peer support professionals will be available for those already certified.
VOA Alaska, Cunningham’s organization, has been growing its own program, adding peer support at residential and outpatient services, and supportive housing.
Through it all, Cunningham said the work is incredibly rewarding.
“To watch them when they come in and to see where they are at in life and to see them when they’re discharging, or graduating, or moving away, going to college or something — to be part of that change, to watch them go through that, that’s my Christmas bonus every year,” he said.
Savage agreed. He said the benefits of peer support are two-sided.
“I really found my freedom from addiction in my service to others,” he said.
For more information on Peer Support and getting certified as a peer support professional, visit https://akcertification.org or https://health.alaska.gov/abada/Pages/AKpeerSupport.aspx.
This story was sponsored by the State of Alaska Department of Health. The Department’s mission is to promote the health, well-being, and self-sufficiency of Alaskans.
This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the State of Alaska Department of Health. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.