Jessica: peer support and me
26th November 2020
Jessica Moran, a research intern for the Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Team at the Scottish Government, tells us what peer support means to her.
Personally and professionally, I have long been aware of the sense of alienation and isolation which often accompanies struggling with your mental health. My research interest in mental health in the perinatal period led me to an internship opportunity with the Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Team at the Scottish Government, where I spent 3 months between October and December 2019. My aims were to review the evidence on peer support in perinatal mental health and to find out about current practice in Scotland – the types of perinatal peer support available, how they are delivered and where this work is happening.
To start, I got to grips with the research evidence on peer support by reading over 100 journal articles and reports. I then identified and contacted 53 organisations across Scotland who offer perinatal peer support. The full report shares the findings in more detail than I could cover here, but I will highlight some key points.
Firstly, peer support reduces social isolation by providing direct social support and by offering support with social activities outside the home, helping to build resilience to a range of life stressors. Mothers reported that peer support was different to discussing their difficulties with friends or family, which sometimes led to unhelpful comparisons or advice. Peer support was especially valued as peers are likely to validate and accept the experiences of the mother, not minimise them. As this mother taking part in a peer support group said:
You get to hear that everybody has the same problems…mothers talk about their lives and it felt like they were talking about my life.
Secondly, peer support in perinatal mental health is linked to a measurable reduction in depressive symptoms. While they can be a bit dry, validated measurement tools are vital in creating an evidence base for the effectiveness of perinatal peer support. My research found several large-scale studies, gathering data from thousands of women, that showed a significant reduction in depressive symptoms as measured on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, after a programme of peer support.
Finally, evidence suggests that peer support can reduce stigma and encourage a recovery focussed approach to perinatal mental health difficulties. By modeling recovery, peer supporters offer hope for the future and tackle stigma by saying ‘I’ve been there’. As one mother who received support put it:
The Peer Support Worker walked with me as I got better. She made me feel normal and like I wasn’t the only one – she was as bad as me and she still got better.
I’m not a parent, but I can empathise with the feeling of being alone with your problems. Peer support helps people recognise that they’re not ‘the only one’. Seeing those close to me manage the intense physical and mental stress and rapid life changes of parenthood, I have no doubt that perinatal peer support is a much-needed resource we should build upon in Scotland.
If you’d like to find out more about my research you can download the report here: