By Rosie, peer support assistant
Peer support is little known outside the world of mental health and drug and alcohol services. For me it has become a big part of my life. Not only have I experienced the power of peer support, I have also become a peer support worker myself.
For the uninitiated, a peer support worker is someone who has progressed in their own recovery, who identifies themselves as a peer and is willing to support other people with their mental health problems.
For me my recovery, my hope, came initially, not from the medical support I received – far from it – it came instead from someone who had had similar experiences to me. She was a woman I met at university, who after a family murder was thrown into a child psychiatric hospital. She was told that because of the trauma she had experienced, that she would never achieve anything. She almost gave up at the time – but she had the tenacity and determination to fight back against these predictions and construct a life for herself that was truly meaningful and worthy of admiration.
‘I had lost all belief that my life could be different’
I was massively inspired by her and how she lived her life. When I suffered with mental health difficulties myself a few years later, she became a constant visitor to me in the hospital I found myself. I was deeply moved that she would show such concern for someone she didn’t know really well.
It was the start of a lifelong friendship. In that institution, I too had begun to believe that I would never be able to lead the life I wanted – to go to university, to have a family, to work in the media. I thought I might always be on the medication I had been given and that would prevent me from having children. I thought my life would be at best, very limited. Messages of hopelessness were drip fed to me so regularly and so consistently that at times I lost all belief that my life could be different.
My newfound friend continued to help me to challenge these assumptions and made me realise that being in an eating disorders unit was the worst place for me. She helped me find a way out and to create a meaningful life for myself.
‘She helped me find a way out’
Now, today, over 20 years later, I do not take those medications. I went on to complete my degree and further qualifications in mental health. I worked in radio and children’s television for many years before deciding it was time to try to make a difference in mental health – just as she had done for me.
Now, I work for a mental health organisation, Second Step, as a peer support worker. I am on the ground managing complex issues on a day to day basis. I try to build relationships with my clients which, though professional, are as equal as possible. I strive to get away from being an “expert” and instead try to support people to achieve what they want to achieve, always with self-belief and hope at the heart of what we do.
I use my experiences very carefully in my support role, striving to ensure that what I disclose is appropriate and helpful to my client on their road to recovery. These relationships are about sharing – ideas, experiences and recovery. And it is this sense of mutuality, this sharing that is so powerful and for me truly amazing.
The therapeutic relationship between peer workers and their clients can often build quickly and deeply. It requires trust, but this type of sharing can help people move forward more quickly. I am supported myself in my role by a peer support officer. This is an important part of what makes my role sustainable. My supervision with her helps me to troubleshoot issues that can arise when I’m working with complex boundaries. It also helps me to tackle any discrimination I might encounter. It’s not always easy to declare yourself openly as having lived experience, but for me it’s worth it for the difference I can make. I really appreciate my employer’s support and the fact we put peer work at the forefront of our organisation.
Most people I have met who have had a spell in a mental health hospital have also experienced the social exclusion and discrimination which go with it. I applaud the Time to Change Campaign and their efforts to battle such stigma and feel privileged that every day I work with people to find new and exciting ways to find what gives them hope, inspiration and the energy for life.
Rosie is a peer support assistant for Second Step, a not-for-profit mental health organisation in Bristol