Being there for each other: mental health, peer support and not being a dick

If we’re building a movement of people who’ve been through terrible things; one of the most important things is learning to be with each other

Tea, biscuits and safety (a photo of a homely kitchen)

The following is the text of a speech given by Mark Brown at The National Survivor User Network Annual General Meeting ‘The Future of Peer Support’ at the Roundhouse, Derby on 25th October 2018.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to work together and to support each other. I recently gave a lecture on the the question of where hope comes from and what we need to keep it alive. This is like a bit of a ‘too long; didn’t read’ version of that.

My main thought was: How can we even think of lecturing the rest of the world about how they should treat us if we cannot even manage to look out for each other?

There is no peer work without the presence of pain and loss and grief and anger and sadness. We cannot undo our own pasts and our own disappointments and terrors by doing good work for others. We all begin our experiences of mental distress alone and confused and forsaken. When we have been through those things and found ways to grow and learn and be ourselves; then we can also extend a hand of welcome and support to others who need somewhere safe to be until they can find their own answers and their own paths.

If we are dealing with inhumanity of a benefits system that has actively discriminated against us; a medical system that still hasn’t caught up to what we need and want and a wider society that talks a good fight about caring about us but often does the opposite of what it says; what we say and do to and for each other matters.

Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, early on described the movement’s mission as to “Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.”

Changing the world is as much about finding ways of living together with what hurts us and being able to be authentic and vulnerable and powerful with each other as it fighting and shouting and politicking. If we can’t be with each other and help each other and comfort and challenge each other between the fights and the horrible stuff we’re building a movement where there are loads of political posters but no love and no hope.

Finding other people who have lived through similar things to us can be like finding a family that you never knew you had. But sometimes, not all the time, what we at first feel will be a new home for us and the family we never had ends up more like the family we did have that didn’t help and leaves us feeling doubly rejected and doubly shunned. There is a special kind of aloneness when we find even our own people couldn’t manage to stop fighting and letting us down.

If we do have a network and we do have a movement I’d love to think that it was friendly faces with massive cups of tea and loads of biscuits spread across the country, or even the world, who could be a place of warmth and nourishment for us wherever we find ourselves.

Imagine that wherever you are; where ever you were visiting; you knew that you could get in touch with a local group of people who’ve experienced distress and say ‘I’m in town: fancy a cuppa?’. Imagine knowing that if you needed to or wanted to there were places to go where you could just find your people. People who get it. Not as a service; not as a contract or a part of services; but just a kind of fellowship of friends you’ve not met yet.

When we come together to make and do things together as people who have lived with and live through distress, we make ourselves vulnerable. Being vulnerable is not the same as feeling safe. When we cannot feel safe and valued we cannot help others to feel safe and loved and find ways of showing that things can sometimes be good and fun and warm when everything else is dark and cold and awful.

If we are building our movement we will do it on making spaces that buzz and crackle with energy and anger but which also nurture and make us safe. In a world where so few of us have found family and home and community, this must in be part of our home. The problem is we don’t always know how to be in each others houses. We’ve sometimes been so used to fighting that we forget how to extend a hand to someone and tell they’re welcome and it’s ok just hang out for a bit. Terrible times can have an effect that gets in your bones; make you unable to stop fighting even when the job in hand is to relax and feel safe. Sometimes I’m scared that we forget how to say ‘come in, do you fancy a cuppa?’ and end up meeting people and just shouting ‘THIS IS SPARTA’ and looking for someone to kick.

A misunderstanding between peers

“Hello, can I hang out?”

We can spend our lives fighting the world, becoming a massive world shaking, throat scorching shout of NO; but to build a movement we need to also learn the art and vulnerability of saying yes. We get boxed into thinking all we can do is make a noise about what we don’t want. But we have to find ways of working out what we do want and making it happen.

Hope comes from seeing things in action and action comes from the hope that the future can be different. Rebecca Solnit in her book ‘Hope in the Dark’ talks about where hope comes from and how hope is the vital element of change. For Solnit, hope comes from jumping in and doing stuff. She writes: “”Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”

Together we have to build spaces and places and relationships where we can keep hope alive. We do that by making spaces that have a place for the terrible things that have happened and also for the even more terrible and risky business of actually do things to make the future better.

Solnit says that we can’t begin to picture a future with admitting and exploring our history. She says: “A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope. Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.”

The only people who can tell a true history of the last ten years of austerity and how it has affected people who live with mental distress is us, all of us. It won’t be the same story for everyone and nor should it be. We all live with different discriminations; different power imbalances; different challenges. But collectively it’s only us that can tell that story. And it’s not the same story for everyone.

If we are committed to peer work around mental health and mental distress the thing we know for certain is that our peers are going to have gone through some shit and will probably go through some shit again. Yet again and again we create situations that do not reflect that reality, as if somehow we might magically find the right recipe and never have to think about the ways that our experiences have pushed us out of shape and made us cranky and touchy and vulnerable. I’m not always the friendliest person. Sometimes I shoot my mouth off. But I’m doing by best to never talk over others even when listening is difficult. We know our friends and colleagues are people who go through bad shit: let’s make sure we actually build that into the way we treat each other.

There has to be a place for acknowledgement of anger and loss and sadness but also an acknowledgement that anger and loss and sadness changes us, pushes us out of shape and makes into the people we are. This makes it even more important that we find ways of being safe with each other and building spaces and places and relationships that can help us grow and find ourselves and find each other and find our power.

Being a practical sort, how do we actually make this movement of friends and peers? I like the approach of the folks in the North East: make as much stuff happen as possible; see how it goes; make things friendly and safe. Hope comes from seeing good things happen. A cup of tea and chat might not change the entire world but it can change two people’s world forever, and then they might go on to change the world for others in turn.

For the first time, there are loads of people talking about mental health and trauma and distress. There are generations below me that are looking for things to do to make lives people better while owning their own distress. They’re already thinking in terms of building political and practical movements and they are proud and they fill me with hope.

If we can’t put our values into action with each other for each other, showing how we value each other and find ways for us to live with and through awful things, then what hope do we have of ever convincing anyone else to listen to what we say?

What gives me hope? People finding their power does. People making the future that isn’t awful does. People not being dicks does. You folks doing stuff does.