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The peer support ethos of empowering people in recovery has helped me accomplish a lot.

Emily, who recently took part in the pilot of taking Peer2Peer online, tells us what peer support means to her. *This blog references suicide.

Something brilliant happens when a person who has spent a long time fearing, or hearing, that they are different, inadequate, or a problem, discovers that all their inner struggles are not only normal and deserving of acceptance, but also give them the power to help somebody else, just by being there and being themselves. Most of us are a source of informal peer support for another person without even knowing it. Depending on the situation, anybody in our lives can offer us peer support through real listening, empathy, sharing and encouragement.

Peer support is not a new concept; but what is new, is the way that these skills are valued, harnessed, and employed to great effect in mental health recovery.

In March 2018, my anxiety and depression were out of control. I developed a strong desire to kill myself, because I felt absolutely worthless, hopeless, and like my own mind was hell-bent on ruining my life, so I just wanted the emotional pain to stop. Luckily, I summoned up the courage to make a self-referral to Stepping Stones, my local mental health charity, after years of taking anti-depressants and avoiding my doctor’s advice to try counselling to deal with past traumas underlying my symptoms. I didn’t want to talk to a ‘stranger’ about my problems, but I had to do something. My wonderful cognitive behavioural therapist, whose methods have changed my life, combined her professional training with her own lived experience, to reassure me and to illustrate what she was saying. I think the principles of peer support and professional support can work in harmony.

Stepping Stones’ Reflect and Connect social group was also suggested, and I decided to do it while I waited for my CBT, but I am still attending regularly today and my gratitude for that wee group is hard to put into words. I think we share an unspoken camaraderie. There’s no pressure to share mental health details, but we all know that everyone in the room has faced similar challenges, even the support workers facilitating the group. No matter how bad a week I’ve had, this is my supportive space where I can be myself, I don’t have to hide anything or ‘act normal’. And if I do need to talk, the group is there for me, unconditionally. ‘Real life’ isn’t always like that, but it should be, and it will be, when more of us get involved with peer support.

In the last three years, the peer support ethos of empowering people in recovery has helped me accomplish a lot. With two other Stepping Stones peers, I’ve completed the Scottish Recovery Network’s Peer2Peer training, helped to plan and run a local mental health event called The Big Chat, and participated in regular discussions with Stepping Stones about ways they could expand the peer support function. Separately, I’ve run my own Facebook support group and local well-being radio show during lockdown. Covid-19 – the virus itself, and this year of chaos – has been disastrous for our collective mental health, but peer support has been a safety-net for many of us.

When I found out that Scottish Recovery Network was running a pilot online Peer2Peer course in late 2020, I knew it would be the perfect next step for me, but it exceeded my expectations. This wasn’t just training, it was immersive. We laughed, cried, and learned together as seventeen ‘experts by experience’, and it confirmed that because of, not in spite of our mental health problems, we are capable of so much. Peer support feels like a loving acceptance, a comforting vulnerability, and a sense of hope, that you are never a problem, you can live a meaningful life, and you are never alone. It’s not about re-inventing the wheel – it’s more like remembering the importance of walking. I am indebted to Stepping Stones and the Scottish Recovery Network, and I am determined to pay it forward.

Peer support feels like a loving acceptance, a comforting vulnerability, and a sense of hope, that you are never a problem, you can live a meaningful life, and you are never alone.

Emily

Photograph by Arianna Petrovan.

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