The work of a group of unsung heroes who are helping to improve people’s mental health and wellbeing in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is being celebrated.
Peer support workers are people who have lived through mental health challenges and are employed by mental health trusts to use their experience to advise and support others.
Patients helped by peer support workers could include those who have difficulties planning their future; struggle to cope with life events; or are leaving hospital to go home or move to a mental health recovery unit.
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust employs 35 mental health peer support workers – and many more peer support volunteers – who help patients by sharing what they have learnt through their own recovery.
A number of the trained peer support workers have also progressed into other more senior posts in the Trust or have gone on to undertake professional nurse training.
Jo Chandler, Peer Support Worker
Jo Chandler started working as a Peer Support Worker with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust last year. After facing challenges with her own mental health through much of her adult life, Jo began to recover in her early 30s and started to consider her career options.
She said: “I didn’t have much in the way of formal qualifications, but knew that my personal experiences meant I could do the job well, so I applied for the peer support worker training about three years ago.
“I now help people in secondary care mental health services across Cambridgeshire to move back to the care of their GP. I talk to people to understand what it is that’s important to them – whether that’s wanting to start college, or just to understand how to keep well – and support them in their recovery.
“I think people appreciate advice from someone on their level. There’s no hierarchy between us, which is really powerful. I’m not clinically trained, but I’ve had challenges with my own mental health so people can see that I understand what they’re going through.
“I love my job; every bit of it. It’s an amazing feeling when you can see the progress that someone has made in their recovery and with a bit of support, they’ve done it for themselves.
“People who have had challenges with their mental health can sometimes come up against stigma in the workplace, but as a peer support worker I’ve been encouraged to embrace all of my experiences. Without the training and then being given this opportunity, I would be in a very different place right now. It’s given me a real sense of purpose and made me a much stronger person.”
Danny Bowyer, Peer Support Tutor
Danny Bowyer worked as a Peer Support Worker for over two years, but now works as a peer support tutor at Recovery College East, helping to train and develop new peer support workers.
Talking about how he first became a peer support worker, Danny said: “During times of significant distress in my personal life, I would occasionally think about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a job that was right for me; how could someone who hears voices and sees things that others don’t, be a valued member of a team? I was determined to find something that I deeply cared about, that I enjoyed and which made me feel the challenges I’d faced and the lessons I’d learned had all been worthwhile.
“I first heard about the opportunity of becoming a peer support worker from my care coordinator, whilst I was receiving support from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust. After this conversation, I applied for peer support worker training and have never looked back.
“Not only did this give me a very real hope for my future, but my wellbeing improved as I realised there was a job that excited me and that I had the skills to do well. The training I received made me a peer support worker, but my life experiences made me the peer support worker that I am.
“As a peer support tutor, part of my role is to help train new peer support workers. This is incredibly rewarding as I help people to see that they too have something important, distinctive and valuable to offer to the lives of others.
“I’m amazed by all of the things that I’ve done since starting to work at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust about three years ago. Seeing people surprise themselves with what they have achieved fills me with me hope. For me, peer support work is the profession of hope and I am eternally grateful to be a part of it.”
Rachel Webb, lead director for mental health at NHS England Midlands and East (East), said: “Anyone can be affected by mental illness at any point in their lives. Mental health challenges represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK.
“NHS England aims to transform mental health services by 2020/21, with an ambition of putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health in the NHS.
“Peer support workers are a great example of how Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust is helping people to recover from their mental health challenges and improve their quality of life.”
Danny and Jo told their stories to NHS England as part of World Mental Health Day, which is held every year on 10 October and provides an opportunity for people who work in mental health to talk about their work and what more needs to be done to make good mental health care a reality for people worldwide.