The transformative power of peer support in recovering from mental illness

Posted on: 31 May 2017

New Irish research by academics in Trinity has provided important evidence about the transformative power that peer support programmes can have for people recovering from mental illness. The research is presented in a new book entitled Narratives of Recovery from Mental Illness and is published by Routledge.

The researchers carried out in depth interviews with 26 people who went through a programme of peer support recovery with the mental health charity GROW. Those interviewed had experienced a range of mental health difficulties including bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression.

The researchers found that while medical treatment and mental health professionals can be a vital start to some people’s recovery, mental health problems can also be resolved through peer and community support and everyday social interactions. They argue that while peer support has long been valued in recovery from various addictions it remains an under used strategy within a mental health system that is currently under serious resource pressures.

They found that recovery from ‘mental illness’ through the hopeful, non-hierarchical culture of a programme of peer support could be experienced as a ‘re-enchantment with life’ where individuals with mental health problems moved through a number of stages towards recovery. People described how they escaped from the alienated isolation of ‘mental illness’ through participation in the small, compassionate social body of a weekly mutual-support group.

Speaking about the research, Professor in Mental Health at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity, and co-author of the book, Agnes Higgins said: “Part of the challenge in transforming mental health services is the lack of evidence based studies focusing on the process and outcomes of peer support services. We believe that this research provides strong evidence of the value of peer support services and is in line with the Health Service Executive plans of transforming mental health services from a medical to a recovery orientation. We hope that it will encourage practitioners to include peer support within the menu of recovery options offered to people with a mental health problem. This would, however, require ongoing sustainable funding for peer-led services within the community.”

CEO of the Mental Health Commission, Patricia Gilheaney said: “This is a must-read for anyone who is striving for a deeper understanding of the causes and solutions to human distress. Through the exploration of the stories of 26 co-authors with lived experience of mental distress and peer support, Mike Watts and Agnes Higgins inform, inspire and educate the reader. They provide a framework for understanding the role of peer support in nurturing people in their recovery. The authors also challenge mental health practitioners and provide food for thought on how they can change their way of being with people in distress.”

She continued: “This book is one that you will want to own rather than borrow, so that you can re-visit it again and again. I would recommend it for the essential reading list for undergraduate and postgraduate medical, nursing, psychology, social work and occupational therapy programmes. It is also a book of hope and inspiration for those experiencing mental distress and those supporting them. Mike and Agnes express that “….it would be nice if the stories contained within these chapters were to plant seeds of hope in the hearts of people currently wrestling with distress and trauma and were to help them start on new journeys of recovery leading to a ‘re-enchantment’ with life” and I have no doubt but they will. I can honestly say that Mike and Agnes have authored a book that will be referred to as a seminal piece of work.”

Through interviews with the participants of the GROW programme it became evident that for many of those interviewed, negative life experiences such as bullying, abuse, , bereavement, isolation or family disharmony led to a slow build-up of distress leading to emotional chaos. In the absence of someone to listen and deal with the resultant trauma, powerful emotions of terror, rage and despair impacted on each person’s thinking and behaviour so they began to mistrust life and became trapped in a spiral of personal isolation and what was termed ‘dialogues of terror’. The researchers found that for many seeking professional help and being treated like a ‘illness’ rather than as a resourceful person added to their distress.

The second stage was where the individual became immersed in ‘dialogues of healing’ through the peer support group, where they found themselves developing trust, becoming hopeful, experiencing a sense of personal value and belonging, and the nurturing of the beginnings of personal empowerment. Within the social womb of the group they were actively encouraged by their peers to believe in themselves, take responsibility, engage in legitimate risks and take on leadership roles within the group. In this way, over time, an intoxicating sense of personal potential and resilience heralded a desire to become re-involved in society.

The final stage, ‘dialogues of becoming’ saw individuals becoming active agents of their own recovery through increased focus on healthy life choices and the re-authoring of identities. Social involvements such as studying, socialising, leisure activities, volunteering and working not only enables inclusion but provided a challenging context for further growth.

Dr Mike Watts, Trinity Research Fellow, co-author of the book, and former national programme coordinator with GROW said: “This study is really important for a number of reasons. First, it challenges people’s perceptions about the competency of people with mental health problems around their own recovery and highlights how peer supported empowerment and risk taking is so powerful in helping and supporting people find niches in the community so they can move beyond the peer support community. Second, the stories in this book are a source of hope to people struggling with ‘mental illness’ and emotional distress and demonstrate many unexplored avenues and paths to recovery that need to be considered.”

Rob Stephen, national chairperson of the Irish mental health charity GROW said: “Over the past 20 years I have heard many harrowing stories of suffering, abuse and neglect which have led people to seek help from a weekly, friendly GROW peer support group. There have been almost as many equally inspiring accounts of how these same people have worked hard to make the necessary changes to their lives and slowly recovered their mental health. I am continuously amazed and inspired at how a random group of strangers, from very diverse backgrounds, can meet weekly to discuss and ultimately solve their own personal problems. I think GROW provides a structured, friendly and safe environment which enables each individual to benefit from the shared experiences and wisdom of the entire group.”

He continued: “Sadly though, many people only find out about GROW by chance and that has to change. This new research will hopefully add momentum to the GROW approach, first adopted in Ireland almost 50 years ago.”

Narratives of Recovery from Mental Illness is published by Routledge, ISBNs: 9781138847996 (hardback), 9781315726243 (eBook) and is available from: all major retailers for academic books.

Media Contact:

Yolanda Kennedy, Former Press Officer for the Faculty of Health Sciences | | +353 1 896 4168