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Overcoming struggle with depression to support and inspire carers in Sunderland

Posted: 28/01/20

Dan Briggs has overcome his 30+ year struggle with depression to forge a new career helping and inspiring people on a Sunderland dementia ward.

Mowbray Ward, an inpatient unit at Monkwearmouth Hospital in Sunderland which treats people with progressive mental health conditions such as dementia, recently welcomed Peer Support Worker Dan Briggs into their team. Since August 2019, Dan has used his own experience of mental illness to have an inspirational impact on many patients and carers.

Patients on Mowbray Ward are often not able to understand or retain information due to their symptoms, and caring for someone with dementia in the later stages can be a very difficult and stressful experience. This made it especially important that the team found the right person to support the patients and carers on their ward.

The role of Peer Support Worker was created by Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, who run Monkwearmouth Hospital, to improve the support that patients and carers receive in their services. Peer Support Workers draw upon their own experiences of mental ill-health to offer guidance, compassion and hope to the people they work with. They also help staff to empathise with those they care for.

Dan helps people in all sorts of ways. He often accompanies carers to meetings, making sure that their voice is heard in situations that can feel overwhelming. By wearing his own clothes and discouraging the use of jargon which is second-nature to some staff, Dan breaks down barriers between carers, patients and the clinical staff who work with them.

One carer described how Dan had helped them:

My wife had been taken overnight into Mowbray Ward and I arrived the next day for a visit confused, shell-shocked, and, I must admit, very tearful. I asked a nurse for some information and was immediately introduced to Dan, who put me at ease and explained what had happened. He said I was no longer on my own as a carer; that I would be supported by all the staff while my wife was on the ward and after her stay.

My mind was put at ease straight away; I felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and he helped me come to terms with what had happened.

Although he hasn’t lived with dementia, Dan understands how carers feel when things become overwhelming and they start to feel low. Dan has struggled with depression for around 30 years.

“I spent a lot of time doing self-destructive things – overusing alcohol and over-eating to block out the feelings rather than accepting myself,” Dan says. “I was in my twenties during the 90’s and used that hedonistic culture, that ‘lad culture’, as an excuse. I told myself that’s just what men from the North do, we work and we drink and we get on with it.”

Around five years ago Dan suffered a particularly bad breakdown, describing it as “the worst place I have ever been in,” battling with thoughts of harming himself or running away from his family. It was this that sparked a journey of self-discovery and recovery that led Dan to helping others in a similar position.

Dan attended counselling for eight months and, amazed by how much it helped him, he decided to go to university to train to be a counsellor himself. “I just couldn’t believe what it was like. I’d felt broken, beyond saving, and getting help from a counsellor saved my marriage and saved my life. I knew if it could help me, I could use it to help others,” Dan explained.

While on his university course Dan met someone who ran support groups for men in Teesside, and started going to these. “I started to really enjoy sharing with others what I’d been through, because people said hearing my story helped them.”

Around the time Dan was finishing his counselling qualification, his wife spotted Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust’s advert for Peer Support Workers to join them. Dan had never heard of a job like this, but was excited to apply.

“I felt like that job advert could have had ‘if your name is Dan, this job is for you’ written at the bottom. It just ticked all the boxes for me!”

“I get to share my experiences, encourage people to look after themselves, and make sure people know that there’s hope – there’s a way back from feeling really down and stressed.”

As a Peer Support Worker, Dan has one thing that’s very valuable on the ward – time. He doesn’t need to worry about monitoring medication or sticking to ward schedules, so he can provide a listening ear without his attention being called away elsewhere. Dan added, “Everyone’s story is different, and the listening skills I learned when training as a counsellor have served me really well.”

Dan’s positive personality always shines through, and he makes it easy for patients and carers to approach him. He really has a can-do attitude and is always willing to go that extra mile for others, whether they are patients, carers or colleagues.

Antony BuckleyManager of Mowbray Ward

Dan is keen to spread the word about Peer Support Workers. “Our role is all about breaking down stigma, so I’m proud to share my story, and if by doing that I can encourage even one person to seek help or get involved with peer support, it’s worth it.”

Find out more about the Trust’s Patient and Carer Involvement team, who oversee the Peer Support Workers.