Mentoring project helps anxiety sufferers towards recovery

A peer mentoring project is providing positive outcomes for people with anxiety, reports Louise Hunt

 Dawn Perry (right) with her mentor, Emmy Smit. Perry said Smith had helped her deal with negative thoughts

A peer mentoring project is providing positive outcomes for people with anxiety, reports Louise Hunt


Project name: Anxiety UK’s peer mentoring and employment project

Aims and objectives: To help anxiety sufferers improve coping strategies and take steps towards recovery, employment, volunteering or training through mentoring from peers.

Funding: £50,000 a year over three years, subject to meeting targets from The Big Lottery Fund

Staff: Project co-ordinator, administrator

Number of service users: 60

Outcomes: In its first year, 86% of both mentors and mentees have made improvements in managing their mental health while on the project.

Many people who suffer from anxiety are referred for psychological therapy, but some find that it does little to provide them with the support they need to manage the condition.

It was reaction such as this that prompted national charity Anxiety UK to launch a peer mentoring and employment pilot project in Manchester, with funding for three years.

“Members and callers to our helpline were saying that, although they had benefited from therapy, what they really wanted was to speak to people who have been affected by anxiety but who have learned to manage it,” says chief executive Nicky Lidbetter. “Psychological therapy is usually limited to six weeks and the feedback we get is that this is not enough.”

Anxiety UK’s approach was to harness 
its 41-year history as a community-
based, self-help charity by developing a 
six-month programme in which mentors experienced in managing their own 
anxiety can share coping strategies.

People who suffered from anxiety are prioritised to become mentors, although some recruits are mental health practitioners, says Lidbetter. “It is very much a two-way process. It builds the mentor’s confidence and helps them to feel that the anxiety they have experienced is being put to good use by helping others.”

For the mentees, the programme is a chance to discuss issues seldom covered by professionals. “In therapy the focus is on the diagnosis, not the day-to-day experience, of living with anxiety,” says Lidbetter, who herself suffered from agoraphobia.

“In between sessions it can be psychologically tiring if people do not have strong support networks, which many of our members don’t. This is where peer mentors can help to keep people on track by acting as role models.” Mentees need to be stable and to not have had recent episodes of crisis intervention.

The mentors aim to build their mentee’s confidence. But Lidbetter emphasises the distinction between the peer mentoring project and therapy. “They have to tread a careful line. They are not clinicians, so they can’t do behavioural experiments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, but they can encourage mentees to build up to activities to strengthen their self-esteem.”

In this way, the project is aimed at complementing psychological therapy services. Although the website and library leaflets generate many self-referrals, there are strong links with the NHS Manchester primary care mental health team. “We believe it can make therapy more successful,” Lidbetter says.

Dr Azza Aglan of the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust is one clinical psychologist who refers clients to the service. She says its approach, combined with psychological therapy, can bring people out of the social isolation that is often an underlying factor in anxiety sufferers. “Having a mentor has really helped some of my clients take the first steps towards becoming more socially active,” she says. “Social access can help to address problems with lapse and relapse.”

One of the scheme’s major achievements came recently when it was awarded the Approved Provider Standard by the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation. After being externally validated it received a mark of excellence, with the foundation commenting: “It was evident that the mentoring project is highly valued by the volunteers, service users, staff and those supporting the project within the community”.

The project is also proving that it can improve outcomes for clients. Using the NHS mental health benchmarking recovery star tool, Anxiety UK showed that, after one year, 93% of participants noted an improvement, which, says Lidbetter, is a significantly higher figure than found in statutory mental health services.

At a running cost of £50,000 a year for about 60 service users, Lidbetter admits it cannot compete on cost-efficiency compared with high-volume talking therapies. But she adds: “In the long-term, it may prove more cost-effective if it prevents people from going on to use more intensive mental health services and if it means they get the most out of NHS services.”

It is Anxiety UK’s ambition to expand the scheme, initially to neighbouring areas in Greater Manchester and the North West, but perhaps even, one day, nationally.

“I really do believe that the project meets the needs of anxiety sufferers in ways that are not currently met by statutory services. Our challenge now is to convince commissioners at a very difficult time,” Lidbetter says.

‘In a few minutes you can feel grounded again’

“Before taking part in the mentoring project I was struggling with depression and anxiety and not really living my life,” says Dawn Perry, who learned about the scheme through a leaflet in her local library.She was swiftly seen by the mentor co-ordinator. “We discussed what I felt I needed help with. I felt overwhelmed by my caring responsibilities for my mentally ill mother. I wanted to control my anxiety and for someone to help me to get on track.”

Perry was matched with mentor Emmy Smit, who is a postgraduate student in psychology. They met weekly in the Sure Start centre where Perry’s son is at nursery. Smit introduced Perry to the relaxation technique mindfulness, which uses breathing control to help reduce anxiety.

“In just a few minutes it can make you feel grounded again and you can do it anywhere,” says Perry. She also wanted the sessions to be structured and instigated the idea of keeping a weekly diary to reflect on how she was feeling. “Emmy really helped me to be aware of negative thinking and to separate myself from these thoughts,” she adds. “She is very inspiring and motivating. I am really fortunate to have met her.”

Perry has just completed her six-month mentorship, and says the experience has “really helped me to realise my potential and push my boundaries”.

So much so, that she has taken a Sure Start volunteering qualification and is now working as a learning mentor for other adults.

She has also set up a Facebook peer support group called Making Mental Health Positive to promote mental health recovery and share coping strategies, including her experience as a mentee. “Overall it was a brilliant thing to be involved in,” says Perry.

The benefits are certainly not one sided, says Smit: “I have a passion for helping people with mental health problems and if a person reacts positively it is a rewarding experience. I also learned a lot from the different reactions of the mentee each week and having to analyse the different situations, it’s a very dynamic process. You have to be creative and have empathy. Being a mentor has given me a lot of personal enrichment.”

Smit is now mentoring another person on the scheme and plans to keep in touch with Perry.

● More information on Anxiety UK mentoring

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This article is published in the 27 October 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Helping therapy succeed”

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