How peer support played a vital part in my recovery and why I am now helping others
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
With the help of increased awareness around mental health through campaigns and media coverage, we are all now aware that opening up and talking about our mental health is the right thing to do. However, finding the right person to off load on isn’t always easy, and speaking to the wrong person can often be more detrimental than not opening up at all.
I’ve had so many insensitive and stupid comments over the years with every instruction from ‘Man up’ to ‘Go for a run’ being thrown at me, and although some of these suggestions were sometimes well intentioned, people who have no experience of depression or other mental illnesses really have no clue as to what to do or say.
That’s why I recently wrote a whole post about how to react if someone tells you that they feel suicidal because I don’t think people are being educated about how they can support and help those who are in crisis.
Taking the initial step to discuss your state of mind takes a lot of guts, so if your attempt to get support is met with a dismissive comment then you are unlikely to ever open up in the future. I mentioned this when I wrote about Caroline Flack because she had posted on Instagram saying that she'd reached out to someone who had called her 'draining'; a few weeks later she took her own life.
The problem is that even if you do find someone with an empathetic stance, talking on its own is not enough to save people’s lives. You can’t talk your way out of severe mental illness as I know from trying to save my friend Tom and from my own experience of therapy.
I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days because my doctor recently asked me to support another patient who is struggling as he goes through the treatment process, and it struck me again that a combination of both successful intervention and social support is the key to saving lives.
I’ve always known that supporting others was essential, the problem was that up until now I couldn’t really give anyone any advice because I hadn’t managed to recover myself.
But now that I am well, I am determined to make a difference, so that’s why I keep churning out posts like this one day after day. It's quite a commitment, especially as I'm not reaching nearly as many people as I would like, but I feel better about myself than I would if I was doing nothing, and there's a cathartic benefit in writing all of this down too.
What’s amusing me in all of this is that I am now being asked by a top Harley Street psychiatrist to support his patients when the NHS rejected me for a training role as a peer support worker when I was initially looking for a way to share my knowledge and help others!
I’m now so glad that they didn’t select me because I know that I can make a much bigger difference through my writing, but it did aggravate me at the time because I know that I have gained so much experience and insight through my lived experience.
I have to say that after 20 years of failures, side effects, iatrogenic disasters and disappointments, as well as unanswered phone calls, being rejected for an unpaid training role really was the final nail in my NHS psychiatric coffin!
I realise now that it’s a better use of my time and ability to do peer support on my own through my writing and by answering the many messages and questions that I get through this blog. And because I’ve witnessed such failings on the current system, I will then be fundraising to improve the situation on the NHS for other people!
Anyway, my amazing private doctor does acknowledge the value of my worth and knowledge in the field of peer support and he put another patient in contact with me last week. This is the third patient that I’ve been asked to help, and we had a long and involved conversation on Sunday afternoon.
As I predicted there were all sorts of questions and worries that came up, all of which were important, but I think the biggest thing that people need to hear is that someone else has been there, and not only survived the horror, but recovered and reached full remission.
The thing that you’re completely lacking when you are 'dying to stay alive' with mental illness, (specifically depression), is hope. This is because the illness is so brutal that it obliterates every emotion and feeling, which means that support and encouragement from those who have been in a similar situation is vital.
Hope is the most important ingredient needed in recovery, and the biggest gift that the peer supporter or family member can offer.
Although opening up about mental illness is essential to surviving it, talking on its own isn’t enough to save people because it doesn’t take the illness away. What it does do, however is to soften its impact and that can sometimes be just enough to keep people here and persuade them to stay rather than choosing that final option.
Talking and being so open about my struggle with bipolar disorder indirectly saved my life because I would never have found the doctor that helped me without a friend’s recommendation, and that only came because she reached out when I posted something alluding on Facebook.
I was so lucky to have had her support throughout the whole ordeal because although this treatment gets people better, it takes time, and there were so many incidences when I needed to ask those crucial questions.
Many of these would be common for most people who are going through psychiatric treatment and include questions about dosages, side effects, doubts in efficacy, symptoms and response times, that only someone who’d been through the process could answer.
Another point that came up the other day was that the financial aspect of private treatment adds such an unhelpful pressure to getting better. This was a real worry for me because for months I wasn’t seeing an improvement, yet the extortionate bills kept mounting up, and that didn’t help me in my quest to reach equilibrium and achieve remission.
This is yet another reason why I’m so passionate about getting this treatment onto the NHS because not being able to work for years and then having to spend every bit of one’s remaining savings, plus losing your career and possessions to the disorder on top of everything else is way too harsh!
Having said all of that I don’t begrudge a penny of what we spent because I am now well and the things that were once important like cars, medals and possessions don’t feature in my outlook anymore because just being ok with life is enough on its own.
But it does make such a massive difference if you find out that someone else is having the same thoughts and worries, and that you aren’t alone in your situation. You immediately feel less cheated, and you don’t have to explain anything as they’ve already experienced the same things as you have.
After the ketamine fiasco in 2017, I met a fellow patient who has since become a close friend, and throughout the subsequent horrific mixed state when I was suicidal in every waking moment, she was just about the only person apart from Mum that I spoke to.
She would just listen and quietly support me by reminding me not to attach any guilt or shame to what I was feeling and that she was there for me and understood the reality and brutality of what I was experiencing.
Whenever I speak to a fellow patient, I always make sure that I tell them that they are AMAZING for continuing to live and that they have done a great job to have even survived which is always so important to hear. I also tell them that they are making positive steps to aid their recovery just by talking, taking another avenue, and seeking an effective treatment.
The problem in all of this is that unless you’ve been where I have then you could never relate to someone that’s suicidal. The cruel thing about mental illness is that there are hardly ever any outward signs that anything is wrong, so people don’t ask if you are ok or know how they can help.
This is why the act of having your pain and suffering acknowledged by someone who’s been there means everything. This is something that is often lacking from a sufferer’s supporters because they have absolutely no comprehension of the indescribable pain that their loved one is in, and that's not their fault because how could they?!
But those of us who have been in dire mental hell can immediately relate which is why I always try to not only reassure and comfort people but to tell them how strong and courageous they are for continuing to fight this disgusting illness.
I will never forget the unbelievable amount of strength, resilience, stubbornness, patience, determination, persistence and sheer willpower that it took to simply stay alive and resist my own suicidal thoughts over the course of my illness.
Because of this, I now know the paramount importance of the empathetic stance that only a fellow sufferer can offer, and I will continue to do everything I can in my quest to support and help others!
If you would like to know more about peer support you can find more information here.
There is also a nice video on YouTube which explains how peer support is working for young people which you can find on the home page.
Thanks for reading,
Speak to you soon,