Peer Recovery Coaching: A New Tool for Relapse Prevention

Peer recovery coaching is a useful service  for relapse prevention.Although persons in recovery have always been an important part of successful addiction treatment programs, formal peer recovery coaching is gaining ground as a key component of treatment at rehabs and in a variety of recovery settings. So what is peer recovery coaching? And how is a peer recovery coach different from a counselor or sponsor? How do peer recovery coaches fit within the existing treatment structures? In this article, we will discover the answers to these questions about peer recovery coaching and its value in treating substance abuse and addiction.

What is a peer recovery coach?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), the national agency governing and funding most addiction treatment, peer recovery coaching is “a set of nonclinical, activities, based on shared lived experience, that engage, educate and support an individual to successfully recover from mental and/or substance use disorders. Peer Recovery Coaches act as a recovery and empowerment catalyst: guiding the recovery process and supporting the individual’s recovery choices, goals, and decisions.”

In most basic terms, a peer recovery coach is someone just a little bit ahead on the recovery journey who seeks to help someone in recovery by providing emotional, informational, instrumental, and affiliational support. The following chart from SAMSHA breaks down the peer recovery coaches role in each area of support:

Various types of support provided by peer recovery coaches

Source: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, What are Peer Recovery Support Services? HHS Publication No. (SMA) 09-4454. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009.

The peer recovery coach is in a particularly good position to provide this type of support for two reasons:

  1. They are a peer. Because a peer recovery coach is also in recovery and is simply trying to offer resources and advice for the coachee, there is a reduced power differential between the coach and coachee, as compared to a counselor/patient relationship.
  2. They recently navigated support services for themselves. Peer recovery coaches are familiar with the necessary resources and recovery support services because they recently navigated them in their own recovery journey. This puts them in the perfect position to coach someone else through the process.

The Recovery Coach Manual published by the McShin foundation suggests several roles that a recovery coach plays:

  • motivator and cheerleader
  • ally and confidant
  • truth teller
  • role model and mentor
  • problem solver
  • resource broker
  • advocate
  • community organizer
  • lifestyle consultant
  • friend and companion

Peer Recovery Coach vs. Counselor vs. Sponsor

The roles that a peer recovery coach does not play are those of counselor and sponsor. In fact, peer recovery coaches are distinct from counselors and sponsors in several categories, some of which are explored below. The full list of categories can be explored in greater detail in the online training provided by the Association for Addiction Professionals.

Foundational Knowledge

  • Whereas a counselor focuses more on the theory behind addiction and effective therapy and must acquire some basic knowledge to be considered professional, a peer recovery coach draw primarily upon experiential knowledge, both of addiction and of the process of recovery. A sponsor is similar to a peer recovery coach in this way, but with a greater emphasis on the particular system of recovery (e.g. twelve steps) adopted by the sponsor.

Organizational Context

  • Peer recovery coaches occupy a middle ground in terms of the formality of their role within treatment organizations. Counselors hold very formal, defined roles within organizations, with a high degree of supervision. On the opposite extreme, sponsors do not have an official position within a treatment organization and are not supervised. Peer recovery coaches can work in a variety of treatment organizations, formal and informal, and may experience a varying degree of supervision.

Treatment Philosophy

  • While counselors work within the particular treatment philosophy necessitated by either their employer or training and sponsors operate within the framework of their recovery fellowship, peer recovery coaches are trained to remain open to a variety of equally valid recovery frameworks. The role of the peer recovery coach is to support a successful experience within whichever recovery framework the coachee chooses.

Power Differential

  • As previously mentioned, peer recovery coaches and clients have a much smaller power differential than counselors and clients do. Peer recovery coaches have this in common with sponsors. Though as the role continues to develop, ethical guidelines and external accountability are beginning to develop for peer recovery coaches.

Use of Self

  • Counselors are discouraged from using self-disclosure in therapy. Peer recovery coaches, on the other hand, strategically employe self-disclosure to encourage and support their coachee. Similarly to a sponsor, peer recovery coaches function as role models, slightly farther along in recovery.

Role of Community in Recovery

  • While counselors tend to focus on the inter- and intra- personal dimensions of recovery, peer recovery coaches are especially equipped and trained to focus on the communal dimensions by connecting their coachees with needed resources in the community. Sponsors may do this some, but typically focus much less on connecting a person with practical resources in the community.


  • Counselors are generally paid for their work, and sponsors volunteer as part of their own recovery journey. Peer recovery coaches occupy the middle ground. Some are paid, and some volunteer.


Peer Recovery Coaching in Relapse Prevention

Peer recovery coaching is a new and vital tool for relapse prevention. By addressing the holistic recovery needs of an individual, offering emotional support and mentoring, connecting him/her with community resources, and helping him/her to shape a personal recovery plan, a peer recovery coach can be a vital link in the continuum of care, helping to turn a successful treatment experience into successful lifelong recovery.

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