Dawn Hardman, specialist trainer in the mental health awareness and suicide prevention field, provides a heartfelt response to our latest Ask the Expert question.
“There’s a lot of talk about removing the stigma of mental illness and it being treated on a par with physical health. There are so many stories of people making great recoveries from serious physical illnesses, is the same true for mental ill health?”
Over the last 35 years of working in therapeutic settings, primarily with individuals experiencing or in recovery from mental health issues, the positive impact of peer support and lived experience has always been a fundamental part of services users’ recovery – and my learning.
From looked after children, addiction services and criminal justice to the mental health field, at the heart of most innovative, effective work is service delivery wrapped around the experiences of those who have walked a similar path. They bring with them the gift of hope, resilience and fellowship.
When an individual reads or hears real experiences from the mouth of someone who has “walked through the fire“, it brings with it an honesty, a sense of belonging and evidence that other support cannot offer. The relationship between the two parties has a unique bond, different to the relationship between say, the professional and the client. The power base is completely different, the barriers gone. The person doesn’t feel as if something is being “done” to them. There are no assessment forms, no judgments, no disparity of power within that relationship. This leaves us free to hear the words spoken, the knowledge learned first-hand by the teller. It’s a pure, direct line from them to us – there is hope, there is recovery, “This is how I did it, it might not work exactly this way for you but there may be tips you want to try”. It also says loudly –
“You are not alone! This is common, yes it’s painful perhaps and uncomfortable to deal with and talk about, but there is hope and I want to share that real, open hope with you. We are in this together.”
Bibliotherapy (therapy by books, articles, blogs and such like) is a form of support often prescribed by the NHS itself and has been for many years. Based on empirical data, many areas across the UK have ensured access to ‘lived experience’ literature.
In East Lancashire for example, I was part of a project which ensured that many copies of certain books written by individuals who had a diagnosis of a mental health issue of psychosis, depression or anxiety, were purchased and placed in every public library. This was to ensure residents would have free, easy access – such is the known power of reading.
We read to relax, to educate ourselves and that improves mental wellbeing. Add to that companionship and recovery. When the writer or speaker has lived experience of mental illness, its power should not be underestimated. It challenges the stigma still prevalent across communities, look at the huge positive impact the Royals have had with the ‘Heads Together’ campaign.
The book “Reasons to stay alive” by Matt Haig, looks at his own experiences around depression and suicide –
“I wrote this book because the oldest clichés remain the truest. Time heals. The bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we haven’t been able to see it . . . Words, just sometimes, really can set you free.’
Matt has written other books and has a presence on social media in which, almost daily, he shares his ongoing journey as well as resources and other blogs. These have undoubtedly enabled countless individuals to reach out for support.
There are many other examples. Perhaps the most well-known for many of us is Russell Brand. An individual who is very open about his experiences with addiction, mental ill health and ongoing recovery. He has written many books and articles and his podcast “under the skin” has proved to be immensely popular and useful for millions of people across the globe. His guests include counsellors, theorists and others in recovery. Peer support proving yet again its healing power. His latest book looks at mentors, their roles and how mentors in various forms have helped his recovery and growth over the decades – and how he recognises his role now within that same mentor heading.
Reading about real life experiences can also be helpful for those who have not had personal direct experience, to gain empathy and some level of understanding. I know of individuals who have given copies of books such as Anna Williamson’s “Breaking Mad” to relatives and friends and said, “Read this, it might help you understand me“.
Health services have known for decades that to increase wellbeing rather than just treating illness, we need to look at new approaches. We need to incorporate lived experience, positive psychology, those beacons of hope whose voices have been quietened for too long.
The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Living Works training I became qualified in delivering some 11 years ago are based around lived experience. The world leaders in mental health and suicide intervention training recognised that, to be effective, evidence based multi-layered training had far more impact. Input from those who had walked that path ensured a far more effective experience and stronger learning than that based round clinical data. Expert by experience gives us that power shift we have needed for many years.
Hearing others’ stories gives us a sense of belonging that we all need and value. Authenticity, empathy and compassion all from the words on a page, a blog or even a tweet!
All of it says, “You are not alone – there is hope“.
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