Last Friday, (24th August) I attended a session in Thetford organised jointly by Feedback Mental Health, Access Community Trust & Voluntary Norfolk. The day encouraged attendees to think about what we mean by feelings of loneliness and isolation, realise people are affected differently, and to see how support from others can reduce those feelings. 6 people spoke about their journeys surviving a particular issue/event and how they overcame it and moved forward.
The stories included the feeling of isolation growing up around addiction, the feeling of isolation and guilt at being a survivor of the 7/7 terror attacks in London, the feeling of loneliness that led to one man joining the EDL because he felt they were the only people who accepted him. They all spoke with honesty about how all these things had affected them and the people around them. They also spoke of how they found a sense of belonging when they met others in similar situations and found mutual support.
It struck me that loneliness and/or isolation is not just about living in a remote place and feeling ‘cut off’ geographically from the world, it is felt for a number of reasons; being the only one speaking a different language in an English speaking country, being the only disabled person in the office or at school, being the only gay man in your peer group. Sometimes I feel the most alone and isolated when I’m surrounded by a lot of people I don’t know, have nothing in common with and am too shy to speak. You may feel isolated because people may be fearful and avoid you if they know you have a diagnosis of HIV, AIDS or a mental health condition.
We all need like – minded people, people we have something in common with, to feel a sense of belonging. It also feels good to share experiences and receive support from someone who really ‘gets us’ and/or our experience. That may be a peer support group, an individual, online forum or telephone helpline. I know when I had my stroke, I only started to move on and re build my life after meeting other stroke survivors of a similar age. I knew then, that I wasn’t alone in my physical and emotional struggles and that there were others living near me that were going through the same thing. We formed a group and continued to share our experiences, learn from each other and most importantly to hear each other. I knew that I could talk about my rage, frustration and grief and they would listen with empathy and without judgement. I in turn would do the same for them.
Peer support is not about fixing someone, it’s not about ‘making them better,’ it allows a person to explore for themselves what’s going on with people who genuinely have an understanding because they’ve been there. This sharing and learning how others have moved on, helps us find ways to do the same.
I left the support group when the need to do that left me. Peer support like this is not therefore, necessarily forever or even on a long term basis; it is for as long as the individual feels they need it. This maybe just one or two conversations, but, this does not and should not diminish its’ value in a person’s journey to recovery.
Norfolk Peer Support Event 28th November