(Originally published 27 Oct 2013)
Last Friday I spent the afternoon at Mind's Peerfest 13 in Birmingham. Despite my anxiety being at a high level for most of the afternoon, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. It was great to see how Peer Support is already working in communities up and down the country in the most interesting ways. I met some great people who clearly commit so much of themselves to causes they are passionate about in their own communities. It might sound cliched, but it made me feel genuinely humbled by the efforts of these selfless people. For all the bad news that we get consistently spoon-fed by the media, particularly lately about mental health, the real story was right there for anyone to see. So, I hear you ask, what did you get up to on that cold wintery afternoon in England's second city?
The day kicked off with some fantastic singing from iChoir from Liverpool. Despite a lack of practice caused by their stressful trip down from the north-west, it certainly hadn't hampered their vocal chords. They sounded great; their cover of There She Goes by The La's was my personal highlight. It was a great way to set the mood for the rest of the afternoon. With my smartphone to hand, I was fully intending to do a bit of live blogging / tweeting as the afternoon wore on. I think I managed about 4 tweets and half a title before my battery died. #takeyourphonechargernexttimeyoufool! Of course, it could have been the universe's way of telling me to just pay more attention!
We had two great MCs throughout the day. One of them really summed up just how important the support of like-minded individuals is, if anyone was in any doubt. It really struck a chord with me, so much so I wrote it down. "Peer support saved my life" she said. Read that again. It saved her life! Not pills, not hospitals, but the support of people who had been through similar experiences sharing their stories. What a way to start!
Next up was a review of research that formed the basis of the day. For me personally, there was some interesting points. The main one was the lack of training that seems to be available for those wanting to facilitate their own peer support group. Ironic too, given that my training on that very subject comes to an end this week. One topic we've covered for the last couple of weeks is the roles and responsibilities within a group and that was a key point. In particular, how a group can fall apart if the person running it falls ill. It'll mean more to people than they will realise. The research also had an interesting point that some of the larger towns are much less well catered for when it comes to peer support groups, than the smaller ones. Maybe that's because larger towns have more people who may be offering it informally, or it could be that the pace of life spares people from having the time to stop and think about what they need or dare to ask for it. I guess we'll never know.
Just to show how cultured we all are, we were treated to some poetry from Laura May (@lauramaywritten). She was sat next to me in the stands initially (bar one spare seat) and if I knew she was going to perform I'd have asked for an autograph ;-). She talked about her experiences of Peer Support and how reluctant she was to become involved in a group. Thankfully her initial disinterest was short-lived. She read a fantastic poem entitled 'The Stranger' about someone in her group and how, despite familiarity, they found a common language that they both understood. I tweeted a line from it that really hit home to me; "happiness dances just out of reach". Beautiful.
The next agenda item took up most of what was left of the day, that being the Open Space zones. We divided into 5 groups covering a range of topics. This was probably my only criticism of the event (other than the lack of chargers to help out those not bright enough to bring their own ;-). It wasn't that there was anything particularly wrong with the topics covered in the 'zones', it was just that I would have loved to attend almost all of them. I would have liked the opportunity to spend some quality time with many of the guests but we could only go to one. I went to the one dealing with Online Peer Support, as it seemed more relevant to what we are trying to do with Men Tell Health. I wasn't disappointed. We had a great discussion with Community Managers from Mind and BiPolar UK. Fascinating stuff. I even managed to 'meet' (but not really) one of my newest followers (@fionaart). She had some great opinions; they must have been great cause I agreed with them all ;-) I spent a long time afterwards wondering if it would be weird to go and introduce myself. So long in fact that anxiety and nerves got the better of me. Sorry!
By the end of the day, I left with a headful of ideas. The first being that if I ever needed convincing of what to do with what's left of this life of mine, it'll revolve around mental health for sure. I want to turn this blog into something much more. I want to see our logo on the slides for Peerfest 14, for all the right reasons. Secondly that the realisation of just how important the role of Peer Support is going to play in the future of mental health services. We can argue about the rights and wrongs of Government cutbacks and NHS shortcomings, we will need to look after each other in some form and, you know what, we should because on the evidence of today, we'll be in safe hands.