Mutual Support "En Primera Persona"

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article 2 0The Federation of Associations of Users of Mental Health ‘En Primera Persona’ is delighted to be taking part in the European wide project Peer2Peer. We are hopeful that this project will create both paid employment and volunteer opportunities for survivors of mental illness on a Spanish and European level.

The jobs that will be created for peer support workers in mental health teams and other organisations will make a significant contribution to the approach to recovery that mental health professionals and outreach users employ in their daily practice. The first time we expressed the concept of mental health peer support in Castilian, it translated as mutual peer support. It is important to emphasise the term ‘peer’ as it is an indispensable aspect of our approach in this project. A ‘peer’ is a person who has experienced the realities of having a mental illness, both the illness and the social consequences of it: social stigmas, discrimination, employment problems, isolation, rejection, mental health abuse services and mentoring and support from family and professionals, etc.

From our point of view mutual support primarily involves forming a safe space to listen to ourselves and to others freely, without an obligation to explain how one feels when they are depressed, psychotic, unemployed or dealing with one or more of the difficulties people with mental health issues can face on a daily basis. Peer support provides a space for individuals to share experiences and resources without necessarily speaking in a clinical language or receiving unwelcome or unhelpful input from a third party. This support for one another allows us to produce useful resources to deal with mental health issues, personal and communal and to agree on our hopes and aspirations; ultimately enabling each project participant to advance along the road to recovery and move past feelings of isolation.

Today, we can speak of two ways in which we are approaching this task. The first is through support groups, generating a collective space to practice peer support. Support groups enable one to feel part of a community where there is a reciprocal relationship: one is heard, they receive support (spoken and unspoken) and in turn this person responds to the needs of the group, both individual and collective.

article 2 1Forming groups of support or action is an instinctual behaviour that humans tend to act upon when there is a risk of danger or difficulty or should people undertake a task that affects them together. Over the years, within the various associations of the umbrella Federation 'En Primera Persona', support groups and mental health units have been created. These facilities represent for us an ideal forum for people to become aware of their disease and embrace their recovery process. Each individual becomes part of a recovery structure within the organization, they are aware of their disease and they become enriched by the knowledge of their peers and in turn enrich others, this results in empowerment for all. Many of the people who use the supports provided by the association, become involved in the work of the organisation and take on responsibilities and in turn progress further along the path to recovery.

The second way in which we are putting peer support into practice is the implementation of a mentoring program. Individuals who have progressed well along their path to recovery provide support to another individual who has not yet developed their skills and strategies or dealing with mental health problems and all personal, social and health implications of their disease. This model of mutual support is also present in our associations. When there is no structured support group forum, individual mutual support relationships usually take place between members of the associations. In a more structured approach in some localities, some ‘survivors’ of the mental health system voluntarily cover similar roles within the existing community mental health teams.

While the relationship between the peer support worker and the individual is reciprocal and beneficial to both, it is also true that the personal and emotional toll for both, is greater than participation in the larger group support system. In our organisation we believe that the two approaches to peer support are complementary. The individual peer to peer relationship is a very positive first step. It is empowering for participants and provides resources to the individual who is more vulnerable that enable a growing independence that will further improve their quality of life. In doing this, the peer support participants are then in a position where they can benefit effectively from the group support forum at a later time.

We live in a community where the power of individual measures to solve a problem should not be forgotten or underestimated and where we see our role in providing people with the tools to improve their environment and the community in which they live. Building mutual support groups, clubhouses, a peer support user federation/society allows the tools for a mutual support and stable collective defense to be adopted. Thus, we see the formation of ‘mutual support agents’ as fundamental to the implementation and practice of peer support and recovery in a manner that reaches as many people who would benefit from these services as possible. These support agents will also enable the amalgamation or creation of mutual peer support projects in the community. The last 30 years experience working in this area and for these goals are key in the prevention and reduction of relapse and assist us in the social and labour market integration of those who use our services.