As lived experience advisors working on this toolkit, we felt that it was important to add a section on the common obstacles we encountered while delivering women’s peer support. The following are personal examples of difficulties that we came across and how we resolved these, which we hope you will find useful.
At the very start of our peer support group, when I was dependent on partners to promote the group to their clients, I found that some statutory mental health organisations were being very selective about who they felt was suitable for a peer support group.
I found this problematic because it is for the peer to decide if the group is suitable for them. Peer support groups should not be a referral pathway and partners need to promote it to the community rather than make judgement calls as to whether people are suitable or not. I overcame this by keeping in close contact with statutory organisations and continually explaining the importance of being inclusive in promoting this peer support group so that it was available to all who have a diagnosis of postpartum psychosis.
As things have developed, I have found that fellow voluntary organisations from Women Side by Side projects have referred more women to us than the statutory sector. We have also received a huge number of self-referrals despite this not being in our original plans. So, my advice to any group or organisation is to avoid doing just one form of outreach, especially if your project is linked to a statutory organisation, and to be really proactive in engaging with the voluntary sector as they tend to understand marginalised women much more.
I know that fellow partners in the voluntary sector will engage in promoting my peer support group whereas in the statutory sector they might just hand out a leaflet without taking the time to talk about how peer support can help. As covered in the Networks and Partnership section, I would strongly encourage and advise fellow peer leaders to link in with other peer support groups and organisations and build these relationships, as they will help build your peer support group and you can also help them.
One of the biggest difficulties I encountered on this programme was the fact that it was very short-term. Working with women facing multiple disadvantages means that it takes a longer time to establish trust and safety before they can truly open up and be themselves, as outlined in the first section. Any future peer support programmes need to take this fact on board, as many of the projects reported that it took time to set up groups and recruit and employ staff. It is vital that commissioners and funding organisations fund women’s peer support for longer periods of time in order to make a difference to the long-term needs of marginalised women and to ensure the sustainability of smaller grassroots women’s groups.
Our group boundaries included a rule of three strikes and out, as some behaviour was unacceptable and made other women feel unsafe. It was difficult to exclude someone when the ethos was to be inclusive, and even more challenging when the woman was remorseful. However, holding the boundary was important for everyone’s wellbeing, and we were able to ensure that she received one-to-one support.
Having the group agreement was very useful at this time, in order to to show that we had all discussed the ‘rules’ and they were there to guide how we acted in the group. Respect was written there with the understanding it included all religions and all our diversity. So we could show this and say, “Do you think that comment follows this agreement?” It made it clear and formal and showed we were concerned about the behaviour, not the person.
We blue-tacked the group agreement to the wall at the beginning of each session, so that it was always there to refer to if needed. Sometimes just to point to it was enough of an indicator to make someone think twice or hold themselves accountable, and for the group to acknowledge that you were aware and had taken some action. The agreement “please keep mobile phones off or on silent” was often pointed to! This was to avoid drawing too much attention to person texting or scrolling, and interrupting who was sharing at that time, but to still keep the group accountable.
One of our participants felt that she needed to clean her home before she left so she was always late. Having that understanding, that there was something more to this behaviour than laziness or being disrespectful, was trauma-informed awareness that she felt she could not leave unless house was perfect and having children meant it was not always possible for her to maintain her high standards.
When we talked about it with her, we found out more about why she was late, so there was a shift in understanding from the group and we shared how sometimes we left the dishes and discussed who actually judged us for that. It meant that we gave her more space, so we had some flexibility, but also, when she couldn’t join us on time, she messaged or texted us to say that she was on her way. As time went on, she valued the time together more than her clean house and once even came early!
If you are asking yourself, “How do I keep going?” – don’t. If you are exhausted, take care of yourself first. Then focus on your intention: why did you want to do this? I find always coming back to that re-invigorates me during troubled times.