Use of peer support groups to promote good mental health

To mark this year’s WMHD, the Mental Health Innovation Network is running a month long series (#WMHD2015 Blog Series) highlighting dignity in four areas of global mental health where dignity is most often compromised and/or redeemed. This week’s subtheme is “Peer Support Groups”. 

Share this blog on social media using the hashtag #WMHD2015 and our Twitter handle (@mhinnovation), and join the conversation by commenting below.

A year and a half ago, BasicNeeds started a photography project in China for a few peer support group members in Hebei Province. The participants in this project are encouraged to photograph their surroundings and use their photos as a medium of communication. Most participants have never used a camera before and this project has given them a new sense of freedom. Besides helping participants, this project also aims at defying the stigma that is often associated with mental illness. According to BasicNeeds China staff members, Yinhuan, a peer support group member, who suffers from bipolar disorder, benefitted the most from this project. Before she joined the programme she would neglect her personal hygiene and would shy away from others. However, once she began participating in the photography group project, Yinhuan started taking care of herself and is now always very neat and tidy. She also regularly participates in consultation meetings, mental health clinics, and group livelihood activities.

“I go to every group meeting and our group members often get together and talk to each other. Sometimes I take pictures of them and everybody is very happy that I now know how to take pictures. In our group we support each other emotionally and nobody looks down at each other.”

- Yinhuan, a peer support group member in Shunping, China

This is just one example of the way peer support groups or what BasicNeeds calls self-help groups, contribute to people’s recovery and sense of well-being. In reality, self-help groups play multiple roles and this has been clearly demonstrated in BasicNeeds programmes. They facilitate better integration by:

  • Bringing together carers and people with mental illness
  • Providing a platform for peer support and information sharing to better manage people’s illness
  • Granting opportunities for income generative activities or productive work which is crucial for sustained recovery
  • Advocating for the rights of people with mental illnesses as they develop and grow in confidence.

By working in partnership with mentally ill people, rather than simply for them, BasicNeeds has built a unique and effective model for recovery and sustained good health. Along with treatment opportunities, the model uses meaningful work and community support to ensure that people with mental illnesses lead better lives. When people with mental disorders are stabilised following diagnosis and regular treatment, they are encouraged to join self-help groups, to support them socially and economically which is crucial for their on-going recovery.

Within these groups, they are listened to and are able to express themselves, talk about their experiences often for the first time, and develop ways and means to manage their mental health. Gradually as people’s needs are met in the context of a self-help group, the need to earn an income is inevitably raised. Helping people to earn an income or find productive work can be one of the most powerful ways to the recovery process. Within the self-help groups, participants learn skills in farming, horticulture, animal husbandry, etc. which are crucial to sustaining their recovery and reducing household poverty. A return to productive work also alleviates pressure on caregivers, the majority of whom are women. By being economic assets to their communities, participants regain their sense of self-worth and dignity.

Channelling support via groups means that individuals benefit from collective support, reducing the risk of them feeling overwhelmed by new responsibilities at a time when they may be at risk of a relapse, while at the same time responding to their pressing financial and material needs.

Self-help groups also form a useful platform for participants to advocate for their needs as well as help the broader community understand what mental illness is. A classic example of this is the Mental Health Society of Ghana (MEHSOG), a user-led movement in Ghana. Members of MEHSOG come from 204 self-help groups, all participants of BasicNeeds Ghana’s mental health and development programme. It is now a registered national association advocating for the needs and rights of people with mental illness.

In Kenya, the Nanyorae mental health group which was formed last year comprises 26 members including 14 stabilised people with mental illnesses and 12 carers. This group meets once a month before the monthly mental health clinic commences. The group provides psychosocial support to its members, raises awareness on mental health within the community, and encourages others to bring loved ones to the community mental health clinic when they experience problems. BasicNeeds has also initiated training in ornament making and crafts to ensure that the group members are economically empowered to be able to buy medicines in times of shortage.

There are currently 355 self-help groups across BasicNeeds programmes with a membership totalling 22,753 of people with mental illness and carers. This number grows each year; our evidence indicates that even when satisfactory recovery is achieved by an affected person, s/he does not automatically leave the self-help group. This in itself speaks volumes regarding the long term effectiveness and value of these people led structures in terms of support, sustained recovery and sense of well-being. 

Image courtesy of Valentina Iemmi. Copyright © 2015 Valentina Iemmi. All rights reserved

Human rights
Empowerment and service user involvement
Treatment, care and rehabilitation
All disorders
How useful did you find this content?: 
Your rating: None
No votes yet
Log in or become a member to contribute to the discussion.