Various mental health groups have been promoting ‘Time To Talk’ day today, a great incentive for people to start discussions on anything mental health related. This feels like a good opportunity for me to get serious about one of my New Year’s resolutions and get back into blogging. It’s been over a year and this thing ain’t going to write itself!

I felt it would make the most sense for me to write specifically about peer support, considering my work in it, and how much I value it. To anyone unfamiliar with peer support as a premise, it aims to create a safe space for people with lived experience of a particular element of mental health to be able to talk freely in groups, without fear of judgement. These groups can focus on one of a vast range of subjects, from managing a particular diagnosis, or a specific issue like self-harm or bereavement. It can also cover many activities, from gardening to music. The point is that it creates a safe environment, and a sense of empowerment and equality. Facilitators of such groups will lead and guide the group, but there is no sense of authority or hierarchy. Everyone is in a similar boat, everyone’s voice is heard and everyone can learn from each other’s perspectives.

My experience of peer support has, so far, been very specific. Almost three years ago, I lost a very close friend to suicide. I was beyond devastated by this loss considering what Katie meant to me and what she represented to me. I pretty much shut down at the time, and plunged into a really severe depression. I struggled a lot with suicidal feelings of my own; I honestly didn’t want to live in a world with out her. I was in desperate need of support specifically tailored to my grief, and I honestly don’t know how I would’ve kept coping without such a thing.

“I’ve always found the drop-ins vital to my wellbeing. Before I was attending them, I was very much in my own head with my loss. It was a very painful, lonely and insular feeling, and it was becoming increasingly alienating and unbearable.”

A friend recommended that I attend an event run by the Leeds Suicide Bereavement Service (LSBS). The event mostly intended to promote the service, but also allowed those attending a chance to have really useful reflection and hear talks from other people bereaved by suicide. From that point, I got involved in a monthly drop-in group. I also got to attend a theory based course provided by the service, working closely with things like stages of grief and management of emotions that such a bereavement brings about.

I’ve always found the drop-ins vital to my wellbeing. Before I was attending them, I was very much in my own head with my loss. It was a very painful, lonely and insular feeling, and it was becoming increasingly alienating and unbearable. In finding and taking part in the groups, I was able to not only gain vital perspectives from people with lived experience from various walks of life, but I also found my voice. I was allowed to talk as openly as I needed to about my bereavement. It opened up a door I didn’t even realise was there. It felt, most crucially, like a safe space. I was listened to, respected for what I had to say and I was able to constantly gain crucial insight from other group members.

Eventually, I began volunteering with LSBS, helping to facilitate groups. The service’s link with Leeds Mind also gave me the opportunity to attend expertly delivered, very thorough facilitator training. That in itself has been a huge boost to my confidence and self worth, considering the level of anxiety I had to overcome to complete the course. I was relieved to find out that I’d passed it at the beginning of this year, and it’s made me even more eager to work for the service. If it weren’t for the groups I originally attended, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do any of this. I also don’t think I would have been able to keep coping with my grief.

To sum up, I simply cannot overstate the importance of organisations like Leeds Suicide Bereavement Service and Leeds Mind. I can only hope that more groups like LSBS pop up all over the country and beyond. I strongly feel that peer support has a vital place the future of mental health services in general. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that such services, and talking about mental health in general, can save lives. And I can say that with some authority, because I’m pretty convinced that it saved mine.

It’s fitting to finish this blog off with a link to a song I wrote for Katie when she was still alive (link below). It’s a song I still love playing, and it sums up exactly how I view peer support now.

For more information about Leeds Suicide Bereavement Service, follow this link.

If you are living in the UK or the Republic of Ireland and are struggling with distress or suicidal thoughts yourself, you can call Samaritans on 116 123.

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