Volunteers Week 2020 – Peer supporter Mellissa Wheeler shares her experience of volunteering

For Volunteers Week 2020 we asked people who have volunteered with Together to share their lived experience of doing that and what it has meant to them. We’re incredibly grateful to all our volunteers who play a vital role in the support we provide to people living with mental distress. First up in this series, peer supporter Melissa Wheeler explains how peer support helped her in a very difficult period in her life and how she is now using that experience as a volunteer to support others:

I’ve suffered throughout my life with my mental health and have accessed mental health services and the community mental health teams on and off throughout. During an extremely difficult period in my life, my mental health declined so severely that I was close to taking my own life. Fortunately, I managed to reach out for help before it was too late. After being assessed by the Crisis Team and Social Services, I was introduced to a Recovery Worker from Together. I received help for six months during which time they helped me get my benefits in order, get my flat sorted and to start rebuilding my life. My confidence at this point was at an all-time low, my physical health was suffering as I wasn’t looking after myself properly and I was neglecting the basics such as eating and drinking properly. All of these things were impacting on my mental health and I was severely distressed.

As my time with the Recovery Worker was coming to an end I was introduced to the idea of Peer Support. I met a lovely lady once a fortnight in a local cafe who I built up a really good working relationship with. We talked about the frustrations of being ill and how it had impacted on our lives. The fact that she had suffered from the same illness as myself meant that I could talk to her about my symptoms and fears and I felt that she really did have an understanding and empathy of what I was going through.

Peer Support helped as the appointments meant that I had to get out of my flat, and it gave me something to look forward to in my diary. It also helped me to build my confidence and to reduce my anxiety about going into a cafe on my own or getting on a bus. It also helped me to learn to trust again. I felt I could put my confidence in the Peer Supporter and that I could gradually learn to talk and to open up. This has lead me to build friendships with other people, to attend other groups and eventually to go to things that are not directly to do with mental health services.

The whole peer support experience has been an invaluable one. I felt that it was the first time that I could talk to someone who had real life experience of my illness and all the challenges that come with that. I felt that it was the best thing I have received in my journey of treatments and therapy as it wasn’t coming from any sort of ‘medical’ perspective.

I feel that I have recovered as well as I possibly can after a really difficult period in my life. After a long period in my life where I haven’t been able to work at all, last year I felt confident enough to train to be a Volunteer Peer Supporter myself with Together. I have now started supporting a lady who is suffering from several challenges and I feel that my time I spend with her is helping her to see that difficult times do pass and that challenges can be overcome with help and with understanding. I feel that I am helping her to feel that she is not alone. I think that the best thing about peer support is that it comes from real life, from a real person who has experienced similar mental distress and the commonalities that come with that. I feel that my own confidence is building and I feel that I am putting something back into a system that helped me by volunteering with Together.

I am looking forward to learning more in further training and taking on new clients in the future. I feel that I am doing something worthwhile with my time and it is helping my self-esteem and self-worth as I am contributing to a cause that it is very close to my heart. I also feel that I am helping to reduce the stigma around mental distress. I am hoping that the experience I gain by being a volunteer will help me with future job possibilities whereas before I felt that there wasn’t any hope for me.

To anyone who is thinking they might like to become a Volunteer Peer Supporter I would say go along to the training and see how it goes. The training is done in an informal and relaxed environment and is good for anyone who might feel apprehensive about learning. It’s broken down into 4 sessions and handouts are provided which are very clear. Support is given by a supervisor during your time as a volunteer so you are not left to deal with anything on your own. The Peer Supporter role is a great role; I enjoy meeting new people and seeing them benefit from my experience and also see myself grow too.