The power of peer support at the Severn & Wye Recovery College How personal experiences are paving the way forward in our management of mental health

Many of the courses at the Severn & Wye Recovery College are delivered by peer trainers, people with personal experience of mental health issues who are now using their knowledge and experience to help others. This approach gives people with mental health problems hope that recovery is possible, and helps them feel that others understand what they are going through. Keith and Heather, peer trainers at the college, both feature in our film: Recovery college: from mental health patient to recovery student. Here they explain why peer support is so powerful for people with ongoing mental health problems.

A student, not a patient

The courses at the Severn & Wye Recovery College are open to anyone experiencing mental health difficulties, and also their friends, families and professionals. Everyone who attends is seen as a student.

This shift in emphasis from ‘patient’ to ‘student’ had a profound effect for Heather, who was originally a student at the college but has now graduated and works as a peer trainer.

‘The Recovery College teaches you to self-manage, you start taking control of yourself, and it gives the power back to you – because you’re not a patient anymore, you’re a student, which automatically takes you from somebody who’s broken and needs to be doing this to get fixed, to somebody who’s chosen to do this.’

Learning from experience

Someone with a mental health problem may receive different types of treatment and care through the NHS – such as medication or talking therapy. Usually, these care services are accessed in the community (not in hospital), and may mean one or two appointments in a month.

But mental health is not confined to one or two days a month – it is something people live with every day. So, learning to self-manage and thinking about the support that friends, family and other services can offer is important. People with personal experience of mental health problems can offer important insights into how to manage mental health.

Keith describes the importance of the peer-led learning sessions.

‘One of the most powerful ways that the college works is that it’s run by people who’ve experienced mental illness. And, if you haven’t experienced mental illness, then it’s difficult to understand how mental illness seems to invade, if you like, like a virus. But we who’ve been mentally ill understand all of this. The Recovery College is a learning technique, which is probably different from anything that people have experienced before. This is a model using the idea that I can learn to recover from my illness because other people have learnt too.’

The importance of hope

In addition to students learning more about mental health, skills and techniques, the peer trainers also help to show them that there is hope for recovery. A mental health condition may be lifelong, but the peer trainers show that it is possible to manage that condition.

Heather has graduated from the college and is now also a peer trainer. She says hearing from Keith was very powerful.

‘Keith’s story of his illness and how unwell he’d been was a bit of a jolt to me. Here he was, saying that he’d fought paranoid schizophrenia and he’d had it for years, and it wasn’t just somebody lecturing me, it was this guy who’d lived through this, who’d applied these things and who’d worked hard on it, and he’s an absolute success.’

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