New Research Reduces Cultural Stigma Around Peer Support Workers

UTHealth Houston School of Public Health logo atop green background, and Louis Brown, PhD, headshot pictured on the right.
Louis D. Brown, PhD, with the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, published a new study which aids in reducing cultural stigma for peer support workers.
Photo of the training series, many people sitting at tables with their attention on the presenter.
Researchers hosting training series at work site to peer workers and supervisors pictured.

New research from associate professor Louis D. Brown, PhD, suggests a new training series can reduce cultural stigma around peer support workers in mental health and substance abuse fields, leading to increased worker retention.

This study conducted a randomized trial of an intervention designed to enhance the supervision of peer workers, people in recovery who utilize their experiences to mentor others. “The evaluation findings make an important contribution for how to deploy an effective peer support workforce that promotes recovery,” said Brown with the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences. 

The study, "Supporting Peer Support Workers and Their Supervisors: Cluster-Randomized Trial Evaluating a Systems-Level Intervention," was published in the January 2024 issue of Psychiatric Services. Findings show that the training series may promote the adoption of peer support in the mental health system, creating a workplace that values the experiential knowledge of peers in recovery.

Brown and SHARE! the Self-Help And Recovery Exchange, tested the effectiveness of a four-day training series over ten months at 85 mental health service worksites in California. The courses covered several topics, including best practices for peer support, trauma-informed models of supervision, and anti-stigma strategies for the work sites to adopt. 
Peer support workers are a growing group in mental health and substance abuse fields. Peer workers aid an individual’s recovery process, simulating a mutual support model to provide support and guidance on a journey they’ve recovered from.  

“The training clearly articulates best practices in peer services, providing peer support workers with a toolkit to draw from that puts peer support first. For example, the training cultivates peer listening and disclosing skills, recovery planning, and the use of self-help support groups,” said Brown. It aids, “supervisors to operate as effective allies, adopting behaviors that reduce stigma in the workplace.” 

SHARE!, a peer-run agency, oversaw the training's implementation, with UTHealth Houston researchers coordinating the collection of surveys from the supervisors and peer support worker participants.  
During the survey data collection, peer workers assessed their organization as experiencing a significant improvement in fostering a more supportive organizational culture compared to sites that did not undergo training. This data suggests that the training at participating work sites helped supervisors and peer workers address the barriers and biases peer workers face.  

By collecting positive data on the effectiveness of the training series, researchers can build on this success to further refine training with peer support workers and supervisors to improve retention and support people in recovery.  
Brown's research interests align with this work to provide peer support at a systemic level. “Family and community structures have shifted in the U.S., leaving people feeling isolated and overwhelmed with poor mental health,” Brown said. “Peer support is central to addressing the mental health crisis at hand because it fosters solutions through relationships and community.” 

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