A wonderful testament to the success that peer-to-peer groups can have in encouraging open dialogue around challenging subjects.
Author: Ellie McGrath: Peer support worker; podcast host (Practice Makes Progress); mentor
In April 2021, I got the chance to speak at a virtual mental health festival, “Fuel Your Mood”, hosted by the Julian Campbell Foundation. The festival was created for young people to share their stories with the hope of inspiring those who might also be struggling; that change and recovery is possible. The festival was live-streamed to Facebook and YouTube and my talk was viewed by more than 300 people, which I still can’t really believe. But one of those people was Mr Michael MacFadden, a teacher at Nicholas Brakespeare secondary school. He was so moved by what I had to say that he asked if I’d ever consider coming to visit the school and speak to the pupils. I was so overwhelmed and excited that I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Helping younger people, particularly adolescents, manage their mental health has been a dream of mine ever since I started my own recovery process and launched my podcast, “Practice Makes Progress”.
I was 14 years old when the battle with my own mental health began. The stretchmarks on the backs of my thighs were pointed out to me during a PE lesson, unbeknownst to me at the time that this was incredibly normal and nothing to be ashamed of. But it was too late and the damage had been done. I became so embarrassed and self-conscious of my body that I wanted to undo whatever I’d done and lose weight as quickly as possible. Sadly I was ill-advised at the time to adopt a very restrictive diet, which left me extremely underweight and became very metally unwell. Pretty much overnight my world has changed, thoughts of food and control occupied my mind, which I never sought professional help for at the time, which I think led to my diagnosis of anxiety and depression during my second year of university in 2017. Just like our physical health, the longer you go without treating a mental illness, the worse it gets and the longer it takes you to recover. It’s taken me a long time to be honest about my eating disorder and come to a place of acceptance that it really did happen and how regrettably poignant it was during my development. It massively impacted my self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, you name it.
As I’ve gotten older and more open about what I’ve been through, I found so many others who could relate and had been there themselves. And as wonderful a feeling it was to open up and be met with, “Me too!”, rather than judgement or misunderstanding, I couldn’t believe that so many of us suffered in silence for so long. That feeling of validation and acceptance that comes from somebody else saying they’d been there too was the sole driving force behind these workshops. I wanted these young people to know that the thoughts they have about themselves, the world, the comparisons they make to each other, pressures, expectations and insecurities, are so normal and they don’t need to carry that load alone.
“I liked the workshop a lot because it helped me understand that people are going through the same things as me”.
As I’ve grown into the mental health space and learnt of all the different approaches used to destigmatize mental illness and encourage people to open up, peer support struck me the most. It was the magical moments I felt when sharing with people I lived with, studied with, hung out with, and they’d say, “I’ve been there”. Facilitating the workshops for the students at Nicholas Breakspeare was incredible, for the first time in their lives they got to see they weren’t abnormal for struggling, or feeling sad, or disliking their body. And just as I had experienced a few years earlier, vulnerability is infectious. Someone says something they’ve been through, immediately this resonates with others in the room and they want to share their own experiences and have that connectivity
“The things Ellie talked about, I related to almost all of it.It was so nice to be able to talk about them”.
In the feedback forms that were handed out after each of the three sessions, a lot of the students praised the peer support approach we took. They liked knowing they weren’t alone, hearing from someone else their age, they saw around school, probably someone they assumed wouldn’t be able to relate, describe a thought or feeling they’d had themselves. For me, peer support work is a beautiful way to normalise mental health problems and illnesses, because you instantly feel understood by 10-12 other people and you learn to be kind, compassionate and patient with yourself because if you wouldn’t treat any of those people differently after expressing something they’d felt, why would you be treated differently?
“I enjoyed being able to be open about issues we all face”.
Both my personal experiences and those hosting workshops have shown me how important it is to know you aren’t the only one going through it. You’re not happy that others have felt sad or experienced pain before, but you become less ashamed and more accepting of your own when you see that other people can relate, and hopefully over time and with confidence you feel comfortable enough to share your story and have your experiences validated and understood.
85% of students scored the workshop an 8/10 or higher.
68% of students scored the workshop a 9/10 or higher.