The International Association of Peer Support (iNAPS) has been a well-kept secret, known mostly to behavioral health peers and others interested in recovery and resilience.
Since 2006, Steve Harrington, founder and executive director of iNAPS, has published its newsletter and organized its national conference which brings together peer specialists from around the country. The newsletter and the annual conferences have been effective in sharing important information on recovery, resilience and the important role of peers.
The 10th annual peer conference will be held Aug. 26-28 in Philadelphia. Now from the sidelines, Harrington continues to support and advise those who have stepped in to sustain the important work that he initiated 12 years ago.
Early in 2000, Harrington was hit with an overwhelming number of searing life events that led to his symptoms of mental illness taking center stage. He was hospitalized for several weeks and told that he would never recover, own a home again, drive a car or be able to work. Once he was released from the hospital, he went home, where he expected to spend the rest of his life dozing on his couch.
After a couple of years, his family confronted him, gently telling him it was time to get back on his feet. Not long after, Harrington was hired as one of six peers to work in a program in Grand Rapids, Mich. At the time, there were no guidelines or even job descriptions for people providing peer services. Industry knowledge was limited, but the group’s motivation was not.
In time, Harrington took a trip visiting peer programs in various states. He was soon convinced that a national association where peers could learn from each other and belong to something beyond their immediate jobs was needed. This, he reasoned, would reduce the feeling of isolation and separation. In 2004, Harrington completed the paperwork for setting up the association that eventually would become iNAPS.
To help reduce the sense of isolation and to share helpful information, Harrington began to send out printed newsletters. The newsletter’s readership has since grown to over 5,000, and, in the past two years, migrated online.
In 2006, the association’s inaugural national peer conference was held in Denver with over 200 attendees.
Despite its popular newsletter and conference, the association has faced many challenges over the years, both internal and external. One of the most challenging internal struggles has been gaining consensus on the definition of peer support with some members favoring a narrow definition and some a more inclusive one. Harrington leans toward an inclusive stance saying, “Peer support is not for any one organization or association to own or define. It belongs to all of us.”
External challenges often have been related to criticism around the unstructured nature of iNAPS. Potential funders and supporters have backed off from investing in iNAPS due to its nontraditional structure. A few supporters have broken through this fear of risk and invested in expanding the association’s functions. In 2010, iNAPS was one of six professional associations to receive funding through SAMHSA’s Recovery to Practice program, which iNAPS used to develop an unconventional full-emergence experiential learning (FEEL) workshop designed as a transforming practice for experienced peer support workers. Again in 2016, SAMHSA awarded iNAPS a grant related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Other partnerships that will bring in financial support to continue to grow the services and spread the values of peer work are evolving.
A fundamental challenge facing iNAPS is that most peers do not have sufficient financial resources and neither do those they serve. Consequently, the association charges a nominal $25 per year in dues for its members and offers scholarships to classes and conferences that stretch its tiny budget. The lack of financial support has not deterred Harrington, nor board and committee members who support iNAPS.
“There are other rewards that outlast and outweigh financing,” Harrington says. “Relationships are the most important part of life. We know that it is through relationships that we heal ourselves and others. iNAPS has provided a format for nurturing these relationships and for caring about strangers.”
What makes iNAPS succeed in spite of its challenges? Harrington explains it this way: “There is something in human nature we are touching with peer support, something inherent in the human experience. People, especially those of us who have been told we have nothing of value to contribute, find meaning and purpose in being able to give back. We want to share our experience of strength and hope. We want to reduce the devastation of isolation and loneliness. This brings forward the best in all of us.”
In 2012, at the request of SAMSHA, iNAPS worked with an advisory team and led an initiative to define core values and standards of peer support. Following a series of focus groups and a national survey, 12 core values of peer support received a 98% approval from over 1,000 peer support practitioners. Harrington synthesized the respondents’ feedback into the U.S. National Practice Guidelines for Peer Supporters. Largely because of the inclusive process to determine core values and the care taken by Harrington to incorporate the essence of peer support as described by those who contributed to the initiative, the iNAPS National Practice Guidelines have gained global recognition as the most widely agreed upon guidelines for the practice of peer support and services.
Peer support is:
- Mutual and reciprocal
- Equally shared power
Peer supporters are:
- Open minded
- Honest and direct
- Agents of change
Passing the torch
Perhaps the most ominous challenge faced by the association, though, came in the summer of 2015, just as plans were being put into place for the year’s annual conference in San Antonio. Harrington suffered a series of strokes, rendering him incapable of contributing to the planning and implementation of the conference. With peers being hired at an unprecedented rate across the country and iNAPS playing a critical role in continuing to define the role and practices of peer support, friends of the association had a vested interested in ensuring its sustainability.
Rita Cronise, who had been working closely with Harrington, took the helm, not as a successor, but as a fellow peer using the values of mutuality and vulnerability. The conference went on as planned and bonded the supporters in commitment to a cause.
Estimates of the number of peers working in paid or volunteer peer support positions today range from 30,000 to 50,000, with figures rapidly rising. iNAPS continues to embrace them and support their work.
If more organizations embraced the iNAPS model, they would be the better for it.
Lori Ashcraft is director of Resilience Inc., a training and consulting group with a mission of creating new ways to optimize organizational resilience and wellness.