Since its origins during the late 1980s, the use of peer specialists in traditional mental health agencies has grown tremendously. There are now an estimated 30,000 people with psychiatric histories employed in such positions across the country.1 The term “peer specialist” was coined nearly 30 years ago in a federally funded research and demonstration project in the Bronx, New York. 2 The position was created for workers with a psychiatric history who were trained to provide peer support and to assist people in developing self-help skills, support systems, and strategies to deal with emotional distress and extreme states.3 The goal of establishing this role was to bring genuine peer support to people receiving traditional community-based mental health services. “Peer support” was defined as a “reciprocal process through which people with shared experiences support each other’s healing and growth in the context of community.”
The Bronx Peer Specialist Project came about at a time when the US federal government invested considerable funds to demonstrate that bringing “consumers” into the mental health workforce and supporting “consumer-operated projects” would have a transformative impact on the wider system and that service recipients would benefit from this type of engagement. While some of the projects showed that former psychiatric patients could provide support services like any other staff, the Bronx Peer Specialist program was first to demonstrate that peer workers’ personal experience directly correlated with certain improved outcomes for people receiving services.