Peer support and mental health

I first met Simon back in July 2018 at Walsh Trust along with his social worker for the purpose of an initial orientation meeting, I had been a peer support worker for just over a month.

I remember Simon being very anxious and visibly trembling, unable to lift his head to look at me and his jaw shaking when he tried to speak.

Simon had experienced several traumatic events in his life in the two years before coming to peer support, firstly he had to take medical retirement due to roto-cuff injuries in both his shoulders. Simon had been working for a local winery for many years, he was proud of his job and the work he did, packing and moving wine cases around in the bottling line.

Simon’s mum also sadly passed away around this time, Simon had lived with his parents his whole life until he was in his 40’s and was very close to them, finding comfort in spending time with them. Losing his mum was devastating for Simon and then his father having been unwell for a long time had to move into care, his physical and mental health in decline, and diagnosed with a form of Dementia.

Simon prides himself being a hard worker and a good son, he has described himself as a quiet guy who has always struggled with reading and writing and is not so good with being around people and who isn’t into talking much. Simon felt his parents sheltered him throughout his life, most likely to protect him, he did not experience the usual things that most teenagers do like going to a party,  going out with friends, or going on a first date and spent most of his time at home with his mum and dad. Simon’s world was small but safe, he had his parents and an elder sister, the four of them they stuck together throughout the years.

Simon says when he became unwell, he really ‘shut down’ he became much more isolated and spent most of the day ‘lying on the bed’. Simon had no interest in food, he was sad and felt he had lost purpose in his life and began to get very depressed. Simon’s world grew smaller, he was hurt emotionally, mentally, and his body ‘hurt’. Everything had changed and ‘change ‘was the one thing that scared Simon the most.

How peer support for mental health works

Initially working with Simon on even small goals, was hard going and frustrating for the both of us. Simon felt anxious and nervous all the time and felt very ‘stuck’. Simon spent a lot of our peer visits telling me why he ‘can’t’ and did not want to do things, his key words were ‘I’m worried’ and ‘but!’ Simon struggled with severe anxiety and panic attacks when we were out, his jaw shaking and stiffening, his body overheating, he was ‘uncomfortable’ most of the time.

As the months went on, I held the hope for Simon, though he could see none. I knew that he was a great guy with so much potential, and I just kept waiting for the day he would see it too. I also waited for a ‘breakthrough’, that moment where something would change for Simon. So often we cannot pinpoint how, or this happens, but it does in some way for most people that embark on their own journey towards wellness.

We spent many hours going to beaches, walking, talking, slowly learning to be around and with others, building a strong connection; this is one of the ways peer support for mental health can really help. The focus was on ‘moving forward’ and staying positive but also about sitting in the uncomfortableness of severe anxiety and the sadness of depression, grief and loss and being OK with that. At times I felt like I was pushing Simon too much, but he always worked with me, and never once gave up or threw in the towel!

A few months back I started noticing tiny changes in Simon, he would set himself a challenge and was beginning to face his fears, he was ‘doing things’ he was ‘having coffee with a friend’. Simon was getting busy he had plans!

Simon has completed a 6-month course at Vision West in (Literacy and numeracy skills) and then started attending a literacy group through (Literacy Waitakere) to help Simon learn to read, write and spell. Simon now says getting him on that course was in his words ‘probably the best thing that ever happened in my life’, It gave Simon new skills, but most of all it gave him purpose and confidence, a reason to set his alarm clock, a place to be! It taught him he could be around other people and ‘survive’ that he could learn, though be it at his own pace and in his own style, Simon proved to himself he is ‘capable’. Simon showed courage, strength, and commitment during this time, he was never once late, never took a sick day, and though others often left early and joked about in class, Simon took it very seriously and has always been very grateful to have been given a chance to participate in something that he says has changed his life for the better.

One day we had been out and had a coffee in a café which was a big thing for Simon who experiences severe social anxiety, as we left, he said to me ‘I’m not so scared anymore, the fear is not so bad now. He said things like ‘I can do things now, its still hard but I can see the change in myself now too’. This was the moment I knew that Simon had found his hope and was starting to regain his independence.

The importance of peer support in mental health

Since that day, Simon is continuing to make great progress and changes in his life, Simon has lost 12 KG (1.5KG to a healthy BMI) and is walking and eating better, Simon is cooking vegetables, instead of eating noodles, he makes a great trifle,( his mum recipe) and is attending stepping out and literacy group, he has just registered to attend  a free health course and is thinking about going to a weekly brunch for over 60’s at Korero Café. Simon is working hard on his computer, with my support and a lot of hard work Simon has learnt the basics of using a computer and can now use e-mails. Simon continues to work on Pathways to improve his literacy and can now access more features on his mobile phone such as accessing Wi-Fi and listening to music.

It has been wonderful for me to arrive at Simon’s house to hear about all the things he has been doing and achieving since our previous visit, I am so happy seeing Simon smile and to experience him finding joy and happiness bit by bit, day by day.

One of those joys I got to share in was to turn up at Simon’s house recently and see him with his collection of clocks, several on the table, his tools out, and him telling me he has been quite busy working on them all. One of Simon’s greatest passions is clocks, before he became unwell Simon spent a lot of time collecting and working on antique clocks some over 100 years old. Simon is also an incredibly talented woodworker and has created and built so many unique and imaginative pieces which are displayed proudly in his home, Simon describes them as ‘a labor of love’. Simon has built clocks from scratch, from timber he found in organics, with clock faces he found in a market or second-hand store, his eye for detail and perfection is astounding, he says he doesn’t know where the ideas come from, that the ideas all live in his head, Simon says he is self-taught and just picked things up along the way, getting inspiration from his father who was a carpenter, to work with wood.

Simon was unable to find joy or interest in his hobbies for the past few years, so to find Simon with his clocks surrounding him and to see the biggest smile on his face as he showed off his handiwork, that was the best feeling ever! To see Simon brought to tears talking about his mum and dad and how he knows they would be proud of him was very emotional for me, and honestly is what makes this job so incredibly rewarding and equally therapeutic. Being with Simon on this journey as helped me in my own life, we have set goals together, and through forming a mutual relationship we have both grown and I believe learned a great deal from each other!

Recently we found out that Simon will not be able to return to work due to his physical limitations, but he is not letting this stop him. Simon is more determined than ever to have a great life, the kind of life that he knows will have his mum and dad proud, a life where Simon smiles and can laugh and even dare to ‘dance’, a life that may include finding a special someone for the first time ever, the motto we always remind each other of is the one that says- “it’s never too late, you are never to old, for a new adventure”.

Peer support services in mental health

I am looking forward to supporting Simon as he finds his way to his best life ever, as he works towards independence and wellness. It’s been a fantastic journey so far; I am ever so proud of Simon’s achievements and successes and am sure he will go on to do many great things in the future.

Our peer support for mental health is all about being with people who are looking for ways to enhance their lives beyond their experience of a mental illness. All our peer workers have their own lived experience of mental illness and recovery and can appreciate the importance of how hope can build new relationships with ourselves and others. Having a support worker who ‘gets’ where you’re at can be an exciting agent for change that can literally change lives. 

WALSHtrust has been provided peer support services in mental health and community support to our West Auckland people for 30 years. Need help? We’re always here. Ph 09 837 5240.