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My experience of peer support in a rural area

Wednesday, 15 February 2017 Zoe C

Zoe was scared to seek help but ended up using her experiences to help support others.

I first became unwell in 2008, at the age of 24, whilst working as a teacher. I was bullied at work and when I changed job, the bullying followed. Initially I felt so alone and out of place.

"I was convinced that one day everyone would see through the façade I was presenting at work."

Whilst I was holding things together there (and, given the feedback I was receiving, doing a very good job), inside and at home I was falling apart.

As a teacher, reputation was extremely important to my professional integrity, and at the time, living and working in a rural area, stigma was rife.

"Work was a key part of my identity, and actually the only thing keeping me going, but at the same time, the very thing I felt I was most at risk of losing."

Because of this, I didn’t even visit my GP for the first 18 months. I was scared to have anything ‘mental’ written in my notes in case it ever came up and affected my job. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone thinking I could pose a risk to the kids I worked with – I knew I was only ever a risk to myself.

My only experience of ‘mentally ill’ people while I was growing up was hearing the name of the local mental health ward used ‘in jest’ as somewhere one could be ‘locked up’. The people who were there were talked about in hushed tones and murmurs. They were a taboo, something to be both ashamed and scared of.

Needless to say, I kept my struggles hidden from friends and family, and over time withdrew myself completely, which in hindsight made things more difficult.

I managed to reach out to a private counsellor for a period of time, which helped to a degree, and just as I was running out of money to pay for this, I started searching the Times Educational Supplement online forum for information about medical notes and teaching. I wanted to find out whether anyone would be able to find out if I sought treatment.

I didn’t actually find anything about this but what I did find helped me more than that information ever could have. I found online peer support.

It was an online mental health support forum, full of people from across the world, many of whom were teachers in the UK.

"I still can’t quite describe the feeling I had on finding this resource."

A safe space, entirely anonymous, where I could talk candidly about my experiences, share my distress, receive support and finally feel understood.

Initially, the most powerful part for me was learning that so many people like me – teachers – experienced similar levels of distress and difficulty coping, but were still managing to hold down their jobs. This gave me a hope I would otherwise never have found.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell my GP what was going on for those first 18 months, but after talking to other teachers on the online forum, sharing strategies for coping at home and coping at work, reassuring each other and hearing the stories of others either going through the same issues as myself, or who had been through them and come out the other side, I gained hope and the confidence to approach my GP, which eventually led me into much-needed and long-overdue therapy.

It was after this that I made the decision to leave teaching; since the bullying had followed me from one job to another, I had started to lose hope again.

What would I do now? My education had been expensive and led me to this point – so now what? I was reluctant to provide references of people I no longer trusted, and was ashamed of the time I’d had off sick – I’d have to disclose it now, and who would want to employ me then? My future seemed bleak.

I’d always had an interest in mental health and psychology but hadn’t studied it. For some reason this didn’t stop me searching for jobs in the field one day. And that’s where I found it – a vacancy for a Peer Support Worker.

"I hadn’t heard of it, but I was taken aback to find a role specifically requiring personal experience of mental health difficulties. I couldn’t believe it!"

I knew I would enjoy it as I was passionate about peer support. I knew myself that I wouldn’t have been there in front of the computer looking at this opportunity, if it hadn’t been for the peer support I had received myself. For the first time in my life, I applied and interviewed with confidence.

The rest is history.


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