Opinion: Peer Support Specialists allow others to benefit from lived experience


Published April 24, 2022 Asheville Citizen-Times

In September 2021 our nation hit a devastating milestone. More than 104,000 Americans died due to a drug overdose from September 2020 to 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

This is more than motor vehicle and firearm deaths combined. Right here in Buncombe County, a staggering 180 people died from unintentional overdose deaths from 2020-2021.

This puts Buncombe in the highest percentile of overdose deaths in North Carolina for 2020. As a person who spent her entire career working with persons recovering from mental health and substance use challenges, it was exciting to hear President Biden’s State of the Union speech address a commitment to saving the lives of individuals in these populations at risk of overdose death.

As an individual in long-term recovery from alcohol, as well as a retired psychiatric nurse, I understand the intersection of substance use and mental health challenges. I have experienced the devastating loss of friends and acquaintances to suicide and overdose.


The past two years have seen a drastic increase in mental health and substance use issues, with 13% of Americans reporting starting or increasing substance use as a way of coping with stress and a staggering two out of five adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Members of the black and brown populations are disproportionally undertreated. The grief, trauma and isolation created by the pandemic have brought Americans to the breaking point.

One innovative solution proposed in Biden’s State of the Union address is to build a national certification program for Peer Support Specialists which will accelerate universal adoption, recognition, and integration of the peer mental health workforce across all elements of the health care system. Peer Support Specialists are people living in recovery with mental illness and / or substance use disorder who provide support to others who can benefit from their lived experiences.

Asheville is fortunate to have the only Peer Support Specialist non-profit in WNC which is fully managed and staffed by individuals in recovery from mental health and/or substance use disorders. This non-profit, Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness, was established six years ago and has served, free of charge, tens of thousands of individuals with peer support, connection to recovery services, and a pipeline to basic needs. I am proud to be one of the founding members of this innovative and effective nonprofit.

If you have never heard of a Peer Support Specialist, you are not alone. This innovative model is just starting to gain national recognition. Peer Support Specialists not only utilize their lived experience in a professional capacity, but are also trained and certified through the UNC School of Social Work Peer Support Specialist Program- a forty-hour course followed by an additional 20 hours of training. Peer Support Specialists continually learn and grow in their field and are required to re-certify every two years.

In my experience, some of the most effective providers have lived with their own mental health or substance use issues and have found solutions which allowed them to return to their communities to help others. In addition to his vision to increase the number of peer support specialists, President Biden also addressed the need to expand evidence-based prevention, harm reduction, and treatment programs. In other words- a plan to provide nationwide the services that Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness has been providing in our local community for years.

For example, in 2019 Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness and the Buncombe County Health and Human Services Department (DHHS) implemented the Harm Reduction Program. Sunrise Peer Support Specialists “meet people where they are” and provide peer support, resource connection, and safety measures to reduce the negative personal and public health impacts of behavior associated with substance use including: distribution of sterile injection equipment to reduce the spread of infectious diseases; Narcan distribution (overdose prevention); maintenance of multiple safe syringe disposal units and safe removal of syringes or bio-hazardous materials.

These types of programs have historically been viewed by some members of the public as simply enabling addictive behavior, but research has shown that these services actually become the gateway for many persons to initiate recovery. These programs have the added benefit of protecting the community by reducing the spread of diseases through safe syringe disposal.

Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness is an outstanding asset in our city. The staff is caring, supportive, authentic and knowledgeable. They utilize their lived experience to work with others without judgment or hierarchy, which evidence shows is an effective way to reach people who traditionally mistrust “authority” figures.

While Sunrise primarily works in Buncombe County, it is assisting other counties to establish similar Peer Support Specialists organizations in an effort to provide more effective mental health and addiction services in all of Western North Carolina.

If you would like to learn more about Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness, go to their website at www.sunriseinasheville.org, contact Sue Polston, Executive Director at SPolston@sunriseinasheville.org or arrange for a tour with Jodi Ford, Director of Marketing and Development at JFord@sunriseinasheville.org.

Sally Stein is a retired psychiatric nurse who is in long-term recovery from substance use. She is a founding board member of Buncombe County based nonprofit, Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness.