Elaine Browne, peer support worker
Perspective peer support and wellbeing centre opened officially in October 2019. Before then it had been a developing peer practice that met with peers in the locality, through phone calls and renting out rooms in the area. I am a mental health peer support worker, trained and qualified through Dublin City University since 2012. A peer is someone who has had personal lived experience of mental health challenges. That indeed was very much part of my life for years and prior to commencing the training, it was a secret life. I had attended medical services outside of my county and very much showed up to the training carrying the shame and stigma of mental health. We were trained by Paddy McGowan and Liam MacGabhann and it was like every internal question I had about mental health and could previously not voice found a movement of people who wanted something better and different.
Post training, I worked as a peer contracted into the HSE by two other organisations. During that time, for me, it felt like a continuous conflict both an interior one and within the work environment. Peer support was very new and the principles and practices of peer support of course in many ways clash with those of a medical model approach. My previous mental health had taken me to a place of complete round the clock terror and hopelessness and in many ways I discovered my meaning and purpose working with people within the HSE but I still grappled with my role and how much of a difference I was really making. Eventually I left the services quite burnt out, with no long term plan but with peer support still in my heart.
Perspective began as word of mouth when people discovered what I did, then I set up a facebook page and had the first peer support group in my living room! In all of it, I have trusted my heart. Mental health for me is a truly human issue, a human response to life events and it was very important for me that when I set up the service that it would listen deeply to people in a confidential and equal way. At the launch, the place was buzzing. Many people did not know what peer support was or that I had suffered with mental health. Our small town is not without its issues of mental health and suicides so I could sense an eagerness in people to hear something different. Like everywhere, the absence of a diagnosis does not mean good mental health and I heard stories that night of people suffering in silence and alone, stories of being on medication for years and feeling worse and mostly I heard the secrecy and loneliness, the frustration of people and of families. I heard a community that was immersed in the medical model of diagnosis and medication and I knew I had made the right decision to be in community. For me, the medical model kept me alive but it is not the place where I began the true work of healing and I also wanted to provide that alternative for others.
Perspective has evolved into a place that empowers choice and responsibility. In my years of mental health, I became very dependant on the service and felt I couldn’t stand on my own two feet. I walked away from appointments either as an inpatient our outpatient very deflated and shamed. Numerous diagnosis, medications and ect’s (electroconvulsive therapy) which I was told would be good for me, left me lost, disconnected and powerless. For me, these treatments did not work so I remember hatching a plan on my second inpatient time to pretend I was ok so that I could escape. I remember jumping the wall in Galway out the back of my house if I saw the community nurse drive up and after much of that, I was discharged and began making my own choices and decisions. At Perspective, I don’t chase anyone. Connect if you need is the code and that allows for personal responsibility. The hand of supports is something I believe in so at Perspective, there is a range of other therapies, peer groups and wellbeing groups people can attend. The locality now know Perspective and there is never any shame or stigma coming to the building. Through the last 3 years, Perspective has welcomed peer support workers on placement and people who have attended peer support are moving into the field of peer support in different ways. At every opportunity, Perspective engages in interviews and dialogue in the hope that we continually change our approach to mental health. People’s stories need to be heard, their pain and reality to be witnessed, acknowledged and honoured. We have a diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that has a pill for every “disorder” and mostly it’s the overmedicating that steals lives, not the distress of the mental health. During my time of coming of medication, I experienced massive drug withdrawal that I mistakenly took as my mental health, but it was drug withdrawal from my medications. Perspective, like any peer environment holds a lot of lived experience expertise and a space for the person to work it out themselves. Advice is never given as we believe that everyone has their own answers within themselves.
In community, of course I miss my peers within the HSE who continue to do valuable work. I sometimes miss the team and the inside jokes about the services that only us “mad” people might get. In community, I engage in frequent supervision and my own ongoing supports. It’s best for me to be supervised also by a mental health peer support worker who knows and understands the authentic model of peer support. I have devised a self reflective piece that I refer to both in and out of supervision and this is crucial to my role as a peer. My supervisor has referred to peer support as a vocation and it is truly that, my struggles and my pain I really wouldn’t change for they bought with them a wisdom and a shared humanity that I now live with in community. Bits of me show up in everyone at Perspective, the hopelessness, the lost, the down and out, the voice hearers, the people who self harm to cope, the anxiety sufferers and the and the unsettled. Not once in any situation have I ever experienced the upset or fear of people in community that is conveyed as aggressive, because people are heard, they have choice and they are treated with equality and dignity. To me diagnosis in the medical model is opinion based, depending on how you present on the day and who sees you. Within community and as a peer, situations deescalate through connection, respect and trust. My supervision does not look at risk and assessment, it doesn’t tick boxes of goals and treatment plans, it simply keeps me on the humble path of being a servant somewhat in community, changing the way forward for others and everyone finding true meaning and purpose within the peer relationship.