The Value of Peer Support

There is love and support all around you

– Rosie Liddell

In my interactions with young people as a counsellor, I have found that a large part of what helps someone to cope with the difficulties they’re experiencing is setting up for them a support network. A support network is a map of anybody that you can talk to and get support from. Not only does it help signpost young people to what help and support is available to them, it also helps to combat feelings of isolation and helplessness. It helps to send a message to that person that whatever they’re going through does not have to be something that they struggle with alone; they deserve and can have support.

What constitutes a support network can be a mixture of personal and professional services – family, friends, and counsellors being common sources of support. Importantly, what constitutes part of that network can be peer-support – a method of support whose value should not be underestimated.

I currently help to run a listening service for students that operates as a form of peer-support due to the organisation’s volunteers comprising of students. There is something immensely valuable in having and promoting services, such as this, that help to give students the opportunity to speak to someone who is close to you in age about what you are going through. While all of our experiences are going to be in some sense individual, as students we can identify with each on a range of issues relating to life at university. Issues such as academic stress, relationships, university procedures, and house troubles are issues that can affect all of us. As a result, these issues bring us closer together and provide the means for support.

Therefore, while external help from counselling services and other professional services may be helpful, there is a sense in which talking through your experiences with someone who can identify with at least some of what you’re going through reinforces the idea that you don’t have to struggle all on your own.

If you look at the message boards on the Childline website, you can see a sense of collective support: if a young person has a problem, other young people can provide insight and guidance on how to cope due to the fact that a lot of them have gone through similar things themselves or know someone who has. That sort of support can be invaluable in helping a young person recover.

Peer support is often invaluable to the supporter as well. Students who have volunteered for Nightline or attended a Student Minds peer support group have reported that being in a position to help other students with mental health difficulties has made them feel valued and contributed hugely to their wellbeing. It isn’t even necessary that students have the ‘solutions’ or ‘answers’ to the difficulties someone is facing – students can play a key role in somebody’s recovery just by being there to say that they have been through the same difficulties before and understand what those difficulties are like.

Peer Support Options at University

There are lots of peer support options at university. One option is a listening service for students such as Nightline. There are over 60 Nightlines who provide peer support in the UK. For more information you can look at the Nightline association’s website: http://www.nightline.ac.uk. Meanwhile, the helpline GetConnected is a service that connects young people to a specific helpline for support on specific issues: www.getconnected.org.uk.

Student Minds runs a network of peer support groups for eating disorders and depression. These groups are facilitated by trained student volunteers, who are there to listen to the experiences of students attending and ensure that the conversation is pro-recovery. They are an opportunity for students to come to a place where they can talk openly in a safe and non-judgemental environment, and share experiences and coping strategies with other students. More information can be found here: www.studentminds.org.uk/about-our-support-programmes

Finally, for young people up to the age of 19, the Childline Website has a lot of useful information on topics affecting young people, including help in getting support and the message boards provide support and insight from other young people.


For many students, peer support is a vital component of their recovery. For yet more students, peer support is an important way that they can give back to the student community and make use of their experience and position as fellow student. Let’s not underestimate the value of peer support – both for the supported, and the supporters.

“Nobody is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.”
Charles Dickens

So, I want to tell my friends…

– Ruth Beacon

Uni Mental Health Day is upon us and this year Student Minds is focusing on opening up to friends about Mental Health issues. First off, I want to say a huge well done for making the choice to tell your friends that you have a mental health problem. The recent “Time to Talk” campaign aimed to tackle the awkwardness and stigma that surrounds conversations about mental health. It is somewhat reassuring that the difficulty and reluctancy in talking to friends/colleagues/family is not just suffered by you – everyone finds this difficult.

There is a way out, we must actively do something to change this and together as a network of people we can help each other talk more about mental health. University can be an incredibly lonely place, especially if you suffer with a mental health problem; anything could spark off feelings of anxiety, compulsiveness or sadness. This is why it vital that you tell someone you can trust, in order that they can keep you accountable and safe. So you may be thinking … “I am scared”, “what if people judge me?” or “how do I even tell my friends?!” . Well, here are a few tips on opening up…

  1. Write down your feelings: when you write how you feel it is easier to comprehend your thoughts and emotions. Writing them down enables you to think deeper into what and why you feel a certain way, perhaps you could then read this aloud to a friend.
  2. Rehearse what you will say: after writing something down you may want to practice what you will say. This may take the edge off or reduce anxiety. Remember – it’s ok to be scared and nervous. You are doing something very courageous which you will most likely thank yourself for
  3. Go to a familiar place to have the conversation: you and your friend may have a favourite spot to hang out – by going there to open up, it may relax you because it brings back good memories. This could be your Student Union centre, coffee shop or local park.

In the spirit of the campaign to disclose to friends at university, I am going to tell you how I told my friends in the hope that this will inspire you.

When I decided to tell my friends at university that I had been diagnosed with anorexia and depression and decided to take the year off studying to focus on my mental health, I had no idea how to do it! I knew that a big group of my church friends would be meeting up for the weekly student group and I felt this was the right time to do it as I was then, in the middle of treatment. I wrote down everything I wanted to say and emailed it to a close friend to read on my behalf as I wasn’t able to be there in person. I explained my diagnosis, where I was and how I felt. I was scared, very emotional and confused.

After, I am happy to say that I got a lot of wonderful, loving comments giving me hope and inspiration that I was doing the right thing. My friends reassured me that they would be there to support and encourage me to carry on, even when it felt rough and too hard to handle.

So, to everyone reading this, thank you. To those who are going to open up to their friend(s), it is such a relief once you tell someone, you don’t feel alone anymore and someone is there – to listen, to give you a hug or a pat on the back, telling you to carry on because it gets easier and life gets brighter.

University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day is an annual event to promote the mental health of those who live and work in higher education settings. To find out how to get involved in the day, and to find out more about the #IChoseToDisclose campaign, visit www.studentminds.org.uk/uni-mental-health-day.

Finding someone who shares the same pain

– Grace Anderson

Do you get those times when you are struggling and feeling completely hopeless? Getting better seems like it’s getting further and further away? Do you just want someone to tell you that everything is going to be okay? That they have experienced what you are going through and have survived it?

I am very lucky to have been supported during my experiences with mental health difficulties; there has always been someone to pick me up when I can’t find the strength to keep going. Having those around you means you don’t only want to recover for yourself, but for those amazing people who love and care about you.

However, I am aware that not everyone is lucky enough to have the support of friends and family. On the other hand, regardless of your support network, 9 out of 10 people with mental health difficulties have experienced stigma and discrimination (Time To Change). Not everyone will understand what you’re going through and some people might even be hurtful.

Despite this don’t let those people get to you – they might not understand what you’re going through and the only way they can deal with this is by blocking you out, removing themselves from being friends and even being rude and nasty. Not everyone can be as understanding as you are, and this is no reflection on you. In life some people will understand your complexities whereas others won’t. It doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person; it may just be a lack of understanding of what you’re going through.

Nevertheless, don’t let these people make you turn your illness into a secret either. Why? Because this won’t help in the long run. Burying your head in the sand might work for a while, but facing your mental health problems face on and learning to live is the best way to cope. In life, there are some people who will just never understand you, no matter how much you tell them, and there are others who understand everything without you even speaking a word. You just have to find that person or people, who understand you with all your complexities, quirks, problems and personality.

However, despite this support and understanding, helping someone with a mental illness can be hard; it can be draining and your needs may become challenging for them. This doesn’t mean that they like you any less. Sometimes they may just have to take a step back when it gets overwhelming. Not only do you struggle, they will feel your struggles and like you find it hard to cope. My solution to this would be to find someone who feels your pain and suffers from the same mental health difficulties that you yourself suffer from. Why? They can understand that chaos in your mind, as they have also experienced it. You may argue that finding this person would be a hard task, but it’s not. Mental illness isn’t something that just happens to the minority – it affects 1 in 4 people. It’s easier thank you think to find someone.

I have personal experience of this. My best friend, who also suffers from mental health difficulties, gave me the strength when I didn’t think I could go on. She told me that yes, there would be bad days, but things do get better and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike the other people who have supported me – friends, family and doctors – she actually had the experience to give me the confidence to believe her that this in fact was true, and I could get out of this dark place. Comedian, writer and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax advises those suffering to “go and locate a ‘f****d up buddy’; someone you can call day or night, when you can’t take it anymore”. Finding someone who shares your pain is invaluable.

Seriously, nothing can compare with the encouragement you get from someone who has already walked in your shoes. As well as being encouraging, it gives you that safety net that you often need at your worst. Any friend, family member or doctor can tell you what helps, but unless you can see for yourself that it works, it can be hard to trust their opinions. Personal experience brings wisdom that is one of a kind, and if this can be shared with others it can be extremely powerful.

You can endlessly discuss things that may be deemed taboo with other people, your bad experiences, drugs you’ve taken, therapies you’ve received: the list is endless. Sharing yourself with someone who understands and has had similar experiences will mean you will never get bored of listening to each other’s never ending stories.

Also, not only do you have the support from that person, they also have the support from you. It’s a two way process in which you can speak and listen, give and take, be the encourager and be encouraged. Take it in turns to pick each other up when you’re struggling or celebrate when things are going well. It means you will both have someone to hold your hand when it’s needed and guide you in the right direction.

Simply talking can change your life and help you get on the road to recovery. The feeling of isolation and being alone could go away if you just utter those few words “I have a mental illness”. Everyone is different and complicated in their own way: embrace this, share your life experiences with others and you too could make a difference to someone’s life.

Ultimately, remember that you are not alone, there is someone out there who is just like you, with the same struggles, similar experiences and who understands what you are going through.

This is dedicated to my best friend who knows me a little more than I know myself and fellow student minds blogger Becky McCerery.​

How you can get support at university

– Becky McCerery

University is a place of new experiences, new people and new priorities! It’s no surprise then to find a large majority of students experience stress, mental distress and sometimes even isolation during this big period of change. There are, thankfully, many ways your university can support you if you have had difficulties concerning your mental health. Not only can they provide preventatives so your risk of struggling in the future is greatly reduced, but they can also make sure the impact of stress from exams is cushioned by a support network and fun releases. Here are some ways to make sure university is a supportive environment for you:

  • Keep your university in the loop – If you start struggling, whether that be with mental health difficulties or exam stress, your university needs to know! They can help and support you whilst making sure you stay on top of your work and assignments. If you have struggled with mental health in the past (even if you feel you are coping when you first start the semester) applying for DSA (Disabled Students Allowance), putting your name down for guided self-help group classes or even just letting your lecturers know that you have experienced mental health difficulties and distress previously will be of a huge benefit to you. Unless they’re in the loop, your university won’t be able to give you leniency on deadlines, support you through stressful times and let you access mental health support on campus. All of this will make your journey through university much smoother.
  • Join a club or a society – Make university life fun and enjoyable by joining a society to meet like minded people; it’ll help you build a strong support network. In addition, joining a sports team will up your activity levels and give a healthy stress release, which will make the stressful times more manageable! Making the most of your time at university is vitally important. While generally the main reason you’re at university is to bag that degree and pave your way into a dream job, there’s thousands of opportunities while you’re there to make friends and explore new interests.
  • Consult your GP – It’s vitally important that one of the first things you do when you move away from home for university is register with a local GP. If you’ve had mental health difficulties in the past, book an appointment at the beginning of your semester to let them know about your past – it’ll make accessing any professional help through the NHS easier and more efficient. Your GP can recommend any group therapies or charities local to you in your new city, or get you in touch with mental health services to support you for as long as you need.
  • Stress and Time Management – I’m a huge advocate for perfecting stress and time management skills! They will be invaluable throughout your life, but they are of particular importance at university. Your institute should let you know of deadlines in advance, and with the correct time and stress management techniques (you’ll find what works best for you) these deadlines should be attainable. Even so, an unforeseen incident may occur that affects your ability to meet these deadlines whilst producing work to the best of your ability. If this is the case, your institute will be able to extend deadlines, give authorised absences and even cater your exams towards your new needs.

A lot of people see their university as a source of stress and worry. They feel bogged down by deadlines and revision and can feel isolated and sometimes hopeless as things to start piling up. But by being aware of what your particular institute could do for you as well as implementing any preventative measures to make your time studying a little more plain sailing, you can really make the difference between looking back on your time at university and thinking: “That was so stressful and difficult – I’m so glad it’s over” or thinking: “Wow, that was hard work – but what an incredible ride!”

Working with people who live with mental health difficulties

My experience with mental illnesses started in my early teen years, when my grandma developed Alzheimer’s disease. Seeing my Dad having to watch his mother decline slowly was so hard. It started slowly, with her forgetting small details about things; but escalated into disorientation and severe confusion. After a nasty fall down the stairs, we decided that a nursing home would be the best environment for her to live in, as she would be surrounded by people who could care for her at all times of the day and night. Visiting was the most painful experience, especially when it got to the stage where she couldn’t remember who we were or where she was. Her personality changed so much it was like she was a different person. My mum was so supportive, having a background in nursing and working in a care home herself. But my dad found it hard to deal with the slow change in brain function and personality, as a result of the disease which onset is upsettingly inevitable.

When I turned 16 and started working in nursing homes, first as a cleaner and then as a carer, I found that these feelings were common in relatives who had to watch their loved ones change as a result of mental illness brought on by the onset of old age: their personality quirks faded, they could forget details of their lives or their families, and in some cases they could become distressed, aggressive or inappropriate. Of course, this brought great sadness to the families concerned but also to the person that was suffering from the mental illness. During my time as a carer I have spoken to residents who are scared; who know what is happening to them, and are aware that there is little they can do to stop it. They feel distressed at their confusion and embarrassed when they draw attention to themselves with erratic behaviour.

As a carer used to looking after elderly people suffering from mental illnesses, I thought that the care and treatment that they receive should be universal and apply to people of all ages who have trouble with their mental health – whether it be an illness, or just a temporary instability of the mind. I also believe that just because mental illnesses are expected more with old age, they are still very common in younger generations and so just because they are not necessarily expected to suffer from a mental illness does not mean that it is unlikely to happen, or that it should be looked down upon as a weakness. I find that far too often the pressures of life in the 21st century mean that people become run down and unable to cope with everyday demands. People cannot be seen to be ‘weak’ in any way, and so admitting that they cannot come to work because they are suffering from a mental illness or condition is often seen as less of a reason than if that person was physically injured.

So, my reasons for joining the Mental Health Matters society are because I believe in the right to have equality and recognition of mental illnesses and conditions across all ages and lifestyles, and that the stigma attached to mental health, especially in the younger generations, should be wiped out completely.

My Brother

Most people know the statistics about mental health, especially with celebrities such as Stephen Fry becoming ever more vocal about their own battles, but there’s the general consensus that no one ever thinks it will happen to them until it does. The biggest problem we have is that people will not talk about it. Everyone appears to be ingrained with this stoicism that they can’t talk about their problems, and they must suffer in silence. It is this outlook that fosters an attitude of being a sufferer of a mental health illness as being something taboo. Everyone is affected in different ways, some for a short time, some long term, some directly and some indirectly, but until we start to talk about and share our experiences, nothing is going to change. We as part of Mental Health Matters society are not only personally interested, invested and passionate about this cause, but we are also willing to be that change we want to see. We will be starting a series of blogs to see how different people, from different walks of life around the university are affected in different ways by mental health problems.

My personal journey with mental health began five years ago, when my older brother was diagnosed with depression in his second year of university. At the time I was 16. Being that he lived away from home, and my parents were never overly forthcoming with details, believing (quite rightly) that it was his own choice who and how he told people, I was able to sweep it under the rug and brush it off as a phase. It wasn’t until he moved back from university, that I was forced to confront the idea that this wasn’t going to be a phase, but something that my whole family would have to deal with long term.

Adjusting to life back home was hard for my brother; he would be grumpy and lash out at my little brother, something that would be difficult for me to deal with. I would resent my parents for walking on eggshells around him, not wanting to upset the balance of our usually peaceful house. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t be nicer, why he never wanted to spend time with us, but instead locked himself in his room. Looking back at this time I was selfish because all I could think about was how his illness had affected me. I felt so angry at how he had changed our lives, because I didn’t understand that it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t just snap out of it. And overall I felt helpless because I couldn’t talk to him because I was scared, scared that I would make him worse. This was a feeling I couldn’t shake for years. I felt guilty that I was able to escape from being at home by coming to Sheffield, leaving my parents and little brother to deal with it alone. I didn’t speak to anyone about my brother’s depression, in denial about how much it had affected me. I never wanted to go home for the weekend; because it was going back to a life away from the carefree existence I had created for myself, to a place that I worked so hard to keep secret from my friends.

Over the summer of my first year of university, however, this all changed. I was looking for a book in my older brother’s room. Whilst I was in there I found a sign that he had written, and put by his mirror. It read; “Today WILL be a good day. I WILL be more positive.” It was at this point that I realised how selfish I had been. All I had thought about for years was how his depression had affected my little brother, my family, and me. Without a second thought to how he felt about how he was affecting people too. I felt sadness that I had been ashamed for so long about something that was no ones fault, and I had spent so long, not trying to understand, but rather trying to avoid it in the hope that it would go away.

It was at this point that I made the choice to stop trying to avoid his depression. I researched it and found people online and read about their experiences living with a sibling that suffers from mental health problems. And most importantly, I spoke to him about it. Realising that you are not alone is something that is invaluable in the battle against an illness that we still don’t fully understand. Despite this, people still aren’t talking about it enough, which is why we have created this blog. The more people share it, the more people see it, the more we might help someone who is feeling isolated and alone. Depression isn’t something that is magically cured, in my family there are still ups and downs, but it is something we all go through together. Since I have accepted that I can’t just ignore it, I have found better ways to cope. Getting involved with Mental Health Matters is therapeutic for me. Though I may not be able to help my brother in his battle, I can spread the word, fundraise and challenge the stigma surrounding mental health. I can’t help him to feel better, so I campaign for something I believe in, in the hope that someone, somewhere is benefiting from what we do.

Hope in the darkest of places

– Caroline Adlam, Group facilitator at Student Minds Nottingham

I am one of five group facilitators for Student Minds Nottingham, who are running a structured support group for students. We’re focusing on building a support network, eating, sleeping and exercising well and finding coping strategies that work for you. But more than that, we want to create a safe, confidential space where people can talk about mental health freely, with other people who get it. A place for conversation, a place for silence, a place for healing, a place for battling and a place for life and all the topsy-turviness that comes with it.

I feel a huge responsibility. Not for people, but to people. A responsibility to be the best that we can be. If by being here we slightly improved the wellbeing of one student, then that would make the whole thing more than worth it.

But I have a vision to reach every student here that is hurting. I remember this when eyes gloss over as I say the word “depression”. People turn their heads away slightly or look down to avoid my gaze. I don’t mind. I am so privileged to be standing here doing this, giving out leaflets about our service. I know that hurting people are not always recognisable from the outside. Sometimes they are the ones who plaster on a smile, or the ones who never meet your eye because they know exactly what you’re talking about. That’s why I chase after people to give them a leaflet, or while I continue to talk after they’ve finished listening.

There was a plant that sat on the windowsill of a green building in town, maybe it still sits there to this day. A lady there told me that everyone else had given up on this plant, but it was her project – she had a deep conviction that it wasn’t too far gone to be helped. She sat it in the sunshine, watered it daily, gave it the time and space it needed to grow again.

I’m not a trained counsellor, nor do I have all the answers. But I believe that no one is beyond help, and for as long as I have air in my lungs I won’t give up shouting about mental health and how hope can be shone in the darkest of places.