Peer Recovery Specialist vs. Addiction Counselor

This article explains the benefits of earning your master’s and becoming a licensed counselor, along with the differences between an addiction counselor and peer recovery specialist.
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U.S. News and World Report recently ranked substance abuse counselor as #1 in Best Social Services Jobs and #35 in 100 Best Jobs.

If you've advanced in your recovery from substance use disorder and want to help others achieve the same success, becoming a certified peer recovery specialist can offer rewarding work experience and an effective gateway into the addiction recovery field. Like addiction counselors, peer recovery specialists work with people who are struggling with addiction, helping to assess their needs, set goals and develop strategies for achieving those goals. However, these are two very different careers, with different educational and professional requirements. Explore the differences in more detail below.

What Is a Peer Recovery Specialist?

A peer recovery specialist (or peer support specialist) is someone who is in recovery from a substance use disorder and/or co-occurring mental health disorders, and wants to use their lived experience to help others reclaim their lives from addiction. Because peer recovery specialists have shared many of the same challenges as a person in treatment, they can often bring a valuable perspective to the recovery journey and make deep connections with the individuals they support. While peer support is not professional counseling, it can help patients to transition into life in recovery when used in conjunction with counseling. Peer support is also valuable in communities where there may be limited access to addiction treatment services.

What peer recovery specialists do

Serving as role models for self-care, peer recovery specialists provide support in a number of different ways, such as helping clients identify and build on strengths, set goals and access the appropriate health care resources. They may act as a client's individual advocate while also encouraging the client to self-advocate. Peer recovery specialists work in both public and private settings, including drug and alcohol recovery programs, community centers, hospitals and telehealth services.

Requirements for becoming a peer recovery specialist

Like addiction counseling, the requirements to become a peer recovery specialist vary from state to state. Typically, you'll need at least a high school diploma or GED, and certification from a state agency or certification board. Credentialing requirements vary but may include completing an approved training program, acquiring supervised experience and passing any required exams.

Peer Recovery vs. Addiction Counseling

Addiction counselors are clinical practitioners who follow evidence-based practices to provide treatment for people with substance use disorders. Addiction counselors work with patients and other health care providers to identify substance use issues and develop individual treatment plans. Drug and alcohol counselors may also be dually licensed as professional counselors to diagnose co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression. While counselors work closely with patients, they must also maintain rigid professional boundaries at all times.

Peer recovery specialists play a supportive role in the addiction treatment process, focusing on providing clients with information and emotional support. Like counselors, peer support specialists practice in accordance with a code of ethics. While they must maintain professional boundaries, the nature of the relationship is different than that of a counselor. The peer recovery specialist's job is to establish a relationship of trust with the recovering person and serve as a living example that addiction recovery works if you establish and follow the plan.

Benefits of Becoming a Licensed Counselor vs. Peer Recovery Specialist

Peer recovery and addiction counseling careers are both rewarding opportunities to help individuals, families and communities heal from the impact of addiction. Both require compassionate people with strong interpersonal, communication and listening skills.

An addiction counselor may treat addiction through the implementation of evidence-based practices such as Twelve Step Facilitation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Motivational Enhancement Therapy. Peer recovery specialists engage in supportive roles but do not provide counseling. For instance, a recovery specialist may help a peer advocate to their counselor to ensure their recovery needs are being met. They may also help their peer identify resources to make it to counseling appointments. 

Here's a quick comparison of the differences between addiction counseling and peer recovery careers.

Addiction counselors benefit from advanced education and training

Whereas peer recovery specialists generally need a high school diploma or the equivalent, becoming an addiction counselor typically requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree and in some cases a master's degree (depending on where you practice, and if you want to pursue dual-licensure as a mental health counselor). Learn more about how to become an addiction counselor.

Addiction counselors do not need to be in recovery themselves

While requirements vary by state, in most cases you must be in recovery from a substance use disorder to become a peer recovery specialist. While it's not uncommon for addiction counselors to be in recovery or have a loved one who has struggled with addiction, it's not a requirement of the position and is not necessary for the role. Learn more about the personality traits of effective addiction counselors.

Addiction counselors have greater earning potential

Because counseling careers require more advanced education and clinical training than peer support specialists, addiction counselors tend to earn more in salary. Drug and alcohol counselors also enjoy greater opportunities to raise their earning potential as they advance in their education and career. Learn more about how much you can earn as an addiction counselor.

Addiction counselors have a broader range of professional opportunities

The education and clinical training required to become an addiction counselor opens the doors to a variety of career opportunities in the addiction field. This is especially true for counseling practitioners who hold a master's degree in addiction counseling.

U.S. News and World Report recently ranked substance abuse counselor as #1 in Best Social Services Jobs and #35 in 100 Best Jobs, based on criteria including median salary, unemployment rate, growth, and future job prospects.1

Take the Next Step: Earn Your Master of Arts in Counseling, Specialty: Addiction Counseling at Hazelden Betty Ford

If you're serious about a counseling career or seek opportunities to excel in the addiction field, there's no substitute for earning your master's degree—and the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School offers the highest standards of educational excellence.

Surveys find that more than 99.6% of Hazelden Betty Ford graduates taking the licensing/certification examination within six months of graduation passed the first time,* and 92.4% found employment within six months of graduation.**

Learn more about the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School.

View the Master's in Addiction Counseling Hybrid Program.

View the Master's in Counseling, Specialty: Addiction Counseling Online Program.

* From 2004-2022, based on 453/455 survey respondents
**From 2002-2022, based on 521/564 survey respondents

Find more information about addiction counseling careers


  1. U.S. News & World Report: