CORE: Strengthening the peer workforce in Southern Oregon

February 13, 2023

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  • Southern Oregon behavioral health leaders recognize peer support workers as essential in responding to mental health issues, addiction, and homelessness.
  • A partnership between those leaders, peers, and Providence CORE gathered evidence to strengthen and support the region’s peer workforce.
  • The project offers several valuable findings and recommendations for peers and the organizations that employ them.

In Southern Oregon, local behavioral health leaders recognize peer support workers as essential partners in addressing growing challenges around mental health, addiction, and homelessness. They also recognize a need to support and sustain a successful peer workforce as the region responds to issues like limited access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment, economic and social isolation, trauma, stigma, and events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires.

A partnership between those leaders, local peers, and the Providence Center for Outcomes Research & Education (CORE) aims to help by developing collaborative recommendations to strengthen the region's peer workforce.

Read on to learn more about the Southern Oregon Peer Workforce Project, or click here for a collection of reports and resources related to this work.

Who are peer support workers?

Peers are people with personal experience with mental health conditions or substance use disorders, or both, who use that knowledge to help others facing similar struggles. Peers are known by various titles, including peer support specialist, certified recovery mentor, family/youth support specialist, and peer mentor, among others. They provide a wide range of support, such as helping people navigate the healthcare system, connecting them to resources, and overcoming stigma.

In 2007, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recognized peer support services as an evidence-based model of care for mental and behavioral health and approved coverage for the provision of peer services. This led to a proliferation of peer programs within healthcare and community-based settings, including the Southern Oregon region.

“Peer work is the most important part of treatment right now. People need people they can relate to and engage with. (Our leadership) calls peers’ work ‘the secret sauce.’” —Peer & Peer Supervisor

Partnering to strengthen and support the peer workforce

With funding from the Housman Foundation, the Southern Oregon Peer Workforce Project aimed to strengthen the region’s peer workforce and improve behavioral health and addictions/recovery services and outcomes for the community. Specific goals included:

  • Cultivating a culture of shared learning and collaboration among peer programs
  • Empowering the community to advocate for funding and workforce improvement
  • Building capacity to evaluate and improve peer work within and across programs 

In support of these goals, CORE conducted an evidence and data review around peer services' impacts and best practices, as well as interviews and focus groups with peers and supervisors from 14 different agencies. We also consulted with peers through the Southern Oregon Peer Community of Practice, the Mental Health Association of Oregon, and other regional behavioral health/substance use disorder leaders.

“It's not about what you do with people, but it's about how you treat people and how you are with them; you're not in a power role.” – Peer Employee

Key takeaways from CORE’s research: facilitating peer success

CORE's evidence review shows that peer services are effective and can lead to positive outcomes for individuals who engage with them. As CORE Program Manager Lizzie Fussell, MPH, explains, “we no longer need to ask if peers are effective. Instead, we need to ask how they are effective and under what conditions are they best able to leverage their skills to support community members.”

We also found that as peer programs grow to meet community needs, it’s important to focus on the specifics of implementation and follow (or develop) best practices that support peers.

Furthermore, CORE’s interviews with peers and peer supervisors and input from the local groups described above generated several actionable recommendations for facilitating peer success, including:

  • Invest in training and cultivate a culture that supports professional development and continuous learning.
  • Educate leaders and decision-makers about peers’ roles and scope.
  • Encourage direct supervision by peers themselves and/or co-supervision models so that all peers have access to supervisors with experiential knowledge of peer services.
  • Give supervisors time and encouragement to meet individually with peer staff at least once a month.
  • Provide peers with opportunities for growth and leadership and link them to training and skill development for those future roles.
  • Identify community-centered care networks already in existence to increase access to culturally and linguistically specific peer services.

“...Peers are people in recovery. So if they're stressed out, we run a risk of losing the progress that they've made. So, it is in the interest of the agency, the clients, and the staff for us to prioritize (peers’) well-being. – Peer Supervisor

“I feel like the reason that we don't reach the Spanish as a first language population is because we offer everything in English and then they have to try and fit in.”—Peer Supervisor

The Southern Oregon Peer Workforce Project demonstrates the value of peer work and why it is so important to invest in and support this workforce. CORE's findings and recommendations offer valuable lessons and tools for peers, supervisors, and decision-makers to guide future planning, investment, and actions in this field. To learn more, check out the resources and links below.

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