Wednesday 28 October 2015

Peer support: How to make it Effective, Safe and FUN.

From very early on in my recovery from postpartum psychosis, I felt a strong compulsion to try and help others.  Not only by sharing my story openly and honestly, but also by sharing the lessons of experience.  I knew that such support would have helped me enormously in the dark days of psychiatric care, depression and overwhelming anxiety.

But where to begin?

I'd spent my pre-psychosis life as an economist and management consultant.  I was used to solving problems, yes, but had no experience of caring for or supporting others.  I wasn't a "people person".  

My first foray into the world of peer support was not a great success.  I was seduced by a charity's promise of instant support group set-up, advertising material and name recognition.  My group was hence born overnight.  I received a large (and no doubt expensive) pack of promotional posters and pamphlets and proceeded to call in to all the GP surgeries in the local area.  I excitedly booked a community hall for my first meeting, and went about baking cakes and purchasing coffee supplies.  What more need I have done?

Within a few short weeks it was hopelessly apparent that much, much, more needed to be in place.

Simple things, like my criminal record check, had not been verified.

I had received no training, or even basic guidance.

There was no oversight in place.

Women - often very vulnerable women - were being referred to me through the charity's website, with no inkling that I was completely unprepared and unsupported to help them. 

I had received no training or advice in children's and vulnerable adults' safeguarding.  Or in how to enforce healthy boundaries between my role as peer supporter and the rest of my life.

There were other concerns too, but these were the glaring ones.

Luckily, a month or two later, I came to meet an inspirational peer supporter and charity founder Jessica Warne.  Jessica was a few years' ahead of me in terms of her own recovery and journey as a peer supporter.  What had started as a simple coffee morning in her own front room had transformed into a registered charity, with a committed and experienced board of trustees, good working relationships with other local organisations, and a clear programme of peer and professional support.

Jessica and I met over coffee near Oxford Circus (our halfway house, given her base in North London and mine in South) and it soon became clear our visions matched.  

Jessica asked me to come aboard Cocoon Family Support formally, and become the South London operation.  Immediately I felt relief.  Things fell into place very quickly.  A third member, Rosie, joined our little gang and there was no stopping us.

Cocoon Family Support operates with a "whatever works" mentality.  We offer peer support (one-to-one and group), individual counselling sessions (usually in six week blocks), mindfulness groups, art therapy, drama and music therapy, guided walking groups and complementary therapies such as Reiki.  The groups are well managed and all peer supporters are trained and supervised by professionals.

We are an ambitious small charity, but we do not run before we can walk.  We offer only what we know we can deliver.  Geographically, this means only operating within certain London boroughs.  As a practice, it means we only offer therapies we are qualified to deliver.

"But peer support should be informal! A chat over coffee and cake!  Why all this procedure and officiousness?!" I hear you cry.

The answer is that, yes, some peer support can be very informal indeed: a kind word from a fellow inpatient.  A chat with an old friend.  A walk in the park. 

But the moment you set yourself up as a Peer Supporter, the moment you press Publish on a website, set up those official-looking social media handles, design a convincing logo, you are promising something else entirely.

Families - often vulnerable, desperate and let down by official health and social care services - come to these charities and peer support groups because they promise something.  Not necessarily a cure, but understanding and empathy at the very least.  These families see the logo, the website, the Twitter account, as an official resource.  To pretend otherwise is disingenuous. 

So by all means, carry on being a supportive friend or relative.  Offer those coffee mornings and walks in the park.  But be aware that formal peer support is very different.

A word on the mechanics of peer support.

A wise tutor told me recently that
"Advice is MY solution to YOUR problem."

What she meant was that simply offering advice can be counterproductive.  You know what you would do in a certain predicament, but you can never fully understand another's plight.  

Peer supporters should instead use their own experiences (and hopefully also their training and knowledge) to offer guidance, information and SUPPORT.  Support, in this context, means:
- an awareness and assessment of any RISKS (if in doubt call 999)
- non-judgemental LISTENING 
- SIGNPOSTING to other appropriate services 
- And ENCOURAGEMENT: either to seek professional help, or to practice self help.

Courses such as Mental Health First Aid (which I am soon to become an official instructor of), and more specialised courses such as suicide prevention and perinatal mental health, can all play a part.  However your charity decides to train its peer supporters, the most important thing is that they ARE trained, and that they have the right foundations in empathy, openness and a willingness to share their experience.

Finally - the fun part.  What makes peer support fun? And rewarding and a fantastic vocation in life?  The answer, for me, is two words: Jessica and Rosie.  Working with two like-minded individuals, who encourage and inspire me on a daily basis, is what makes me so certain that this fledgling career in peer support is for me.  So if I can leave you with just one piece of advice it is this: find your own Jessica and Rosie, treasure them, hitch your dream to their dreams and watch them take off.

If I can help other peer supporters in any way (whether informally, or through provision of the MHFA course) please do not hesitate to get in touch!


  1. "Advice is MY solution to YOUR problem" - I love that. Empathetic listening is the key to peer support and the basis of my training as a breastfeeding peer supporter too. Never ever uttering the phrase "if I were you...". Great post.

  2. Thank you sincerely for a most informative and encouraging blog. Reluctant to press the publish button on my perinatal peers website at the moment. It's such a major responsibility. Just the encouragement I need to think a little more before I do. Thanks Kathryn.