Peer supporter shares experience to help others

Posted: 17/08/22

An NHS staff member has shared her experiences of mental health in the hope it will help others.

Mel Christie works as a peer supporter on a ward at St George’s Park, part of Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW).

Her role is to motivate and support service users. Peer supporters draw on their own lived experiences to share insight, understanding and empathy with others on their recovery journey.

A peer supporter’s job is to challenge the stigma around mental health and promote hope and recovery. They act as a voice for service users, helping staff in their understanding and awareness of what it means to be a service user.

And Mel is looking to challenge the stigma of mental health every day.

She became a peer supporter after struggles with her own mental health. She had gone through significant trauma when she was younger. She was a victim of domestic violence as a mother with four young children and then had to deal with the death of her violent partner.

Soon after, Mel was diagnosed with bipolar.

She told a previous employer about her bipolar and was met with discrimination from colleagues.

“I never felt I had support at work,” she said. “I tried to educate people and offered to do presentations on mental health for managers and they said they didn’t understand.”

After a long time of feeling overworked and unsupported, Mel felt she could no longer cope and went to see a doctor. She was instructed to take time off work.

“I lost a lot of confidence when I wasn’t working,” she explained. “I feared I would lose my job and felt unemployable.”

Mel’s breaking point was when she found herself sitting on some train tracks, not knowing when the next train was coming. Her husband came after her and managed to bring her home.

“I didn’t go out for a long time and lost a lot of friends who didn’t understand my mental health,” she explained.

“If I can help just one person, then I’ve done something positive.”

Mel thought she would never be able to go back to work. She was referred to CNTW’s Individual Placement Support service (IPS), which supports people who are being treated by the Trust’s community mental health teams to find, or stay in, paid work. They focus on giving each individual personalised support to help them find a job that is well-suited to them.

Mel now works closely with IPS and the Northumberland Recovery College to enable all service users have the same opportunity to find work and therapeutic activities.

Mel’s passion for peer support is clear. She works on Newton Ward, a ward for men over the age of 18 who require a safe and therapeutic environment to help with rebuilding living skills.

“I don’t like calling them patients, I call them my lads,” she said. “They say having a peer supporter is like having a friend and that I’m living proof of recovery. I let people know that I’m just human. They trust me and share their experiences, fears and anxieties. They know I’m their voice and that I can’t make promises but I will always try. One of my lads said I’m like their mum.

“They are my priority. I’m passionate about their rights and wellbeing. If I can make them smile or laugh, I can go home knowing I’ve done something good. They make my day.”

For Mel, the best part of the job is the acceptance. “I feel like I can truly be me. There is no judgement and my experience is valued. I feel like I’m allowed to excel. I feel safe working in CNTW with amazing support for my wellbeing and I want the lads to feel the same and experience opportunities available to them.

“I didn’t know about peer support and think it would have made such a difference to me.”

Mel is now in recovery and has family, friends and colleagues who accept her.