While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a distinction between role modeling and mentoring. Peer support specialists act as both mentors and role models, so it is important to understand the distinction.
Definition and Examples of Role Models
A role model is a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others.[i] Role models do not necessarily have to be in direct contact with those that they influence. Sometimes individuals have explicit intentions to be role models for others, while other times, they become role models based on their position, visibility or status in the world.
For most people, parents or family members are their earliest role models. As we mature and our lives expand past the walls of our homes, we encounter other individuals whose lives have some element that we hope to have in our own. Throughout our lives, we may identify many people as being role models for different reasons, depending upon our own goals, aspirations and achievements.
What aspects of a person make them likely to be seen as a role model? Generally, we base our identification of a role model based upon one of three things:
- a quality of temperament, character or behavior
- a talent or achievement
- a status or position.
Module 5 Reflection Activity: Characteristics of Role Models
Instructions: Think about someone you currently identify as a role model. Which of the three characteristics above causes you to make that identification?
Is there someone in your life right now who identifies you as a role model? What qualifies you as a role model in their eyes?
Did the characteristics that you chose for your role model match the characteristics that you think make you a role model? What does this tell you about what you value and what others value in you?
Note: This activity is for reflection only and does not need to be submitted along with your workbook.
Peer support specialists serve as positive role models through the lens of their lived experience. The peer support relationship is grounded in the commonalities between the peer support specialist and the client. Some recovery support specialists may not be “true” peers in the sense of being in recovery from a substance use or mental health disorder, but they are still engaged in a peer (equal) level relationship with their clients. In this case, they are not role models of recovery, but they can still serve as role models of healthy, positive living.
Although they cannot be matched to one another in every life dimension, the more the peer support specialist’s experience and background mirror that of the client, the more likely that the client will be able to identify the peer support specialist as a role model.[i] Peer support specialists and their clients find common ground in the issues and challenges they face as persons with behavioral health disorders, including stigma, loss of relationships, employment challenges and other issues. The success of one person’s recovery experience allows that person to be an effective role model for someone undergoing the same journey.[ii] Peer support specialists not in recovery themselves will still have a recovery story to tell based on their encounters with others on the recovery path. They must be cautious to share that knowledge in a way that reflects the collective experiences that they have observed, rather than the stories of individual clients.
To be seen as role models, peer support specialists with behavioral health disorders must have attained and maintained a level of recovery that offers a reasonable expectation of stability and reliability. This also provides them with a sufficient repertoire of successful recovery experiences from which they may draw in the peer support relationship. When selecting peer support specialists to work in particular programs or with individuals clients, selection criteria for lived experience should not be focused on a specific diagnosis; instead, peer support specialists should be selected and matched with clients based on the nature of their recovery experiences and their relevance to the setting in which they are working.
While peer support specialists serve as identified role models within the context of their assigned client relationships, they are also role models in an indirect way for persons seeking recovery. In the broader context, a role model is an individual in which the behavior is observed from a distance. It is likely that the individual and the role model have never come into contact. Many public figures have disclosed their personal stories of recovery from substance use or mental health disorders and clients may identify some of these individuals as role models. Emulating these attributes is perfectly fine. The drawback to having a distant role model, rather than a present mentor, is the lack of 2-way interaction. It is purely an observational relationship with no form of discussion. There is little to no way to get life lessons from the distant role model.
Module 5 Activity: Role Modeling
Instructions: Click the box below to complete Module 5 Activity: Role Modeling.