Mental health support workers use 'chaos' of earlier life to offer help to others

By ITV News Central Production Journalist Charlie Horner

"I'm a bit nervous," says Eugene as we sit down together to speak about his personal experiences with mental health during Mental Health Awareness Week.

I know he's been through a lot and I immediately admire his bravery.

The 58-year-old has struggled most of his adult life with depression and other mental health issues, but he's now embracing recovery and telling his story to inspire others.

"I was ashamed and I didn't really think that I was going to live for too long"

Eugene, who is from Birmingham, tells me he "always had a bit of depression but managed to keep it at bay".

However, that all changed shortly after he graduated from Southampton University and he was admitted to a psychiatric ward for the first time back in 2000.

"I was admitted and I was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed medication," says Eugene, "I was there for about six weeks and then I was discharged into a hostel.

"After that, I led a life of chaos for about 10 years, disengaged from the services".

He tells me that during this time is when he began to struggle with substance abuse and alcohol addiction.

He says he felt "ashamed and embarrassed" due to the negative stigma associated with mental health at the time and he quickly lost all contact with his family and friends.

Eugene finally returned to Birmingham to be with his family but he was admitted to hospital for a second time in 2014.

This time he was taken to the George Ward in Erdington, which is part of the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust.

He says this is when his life began to change and with the help of the services he threw himself into activities such as creative writing, cycling and volunteering.

Eugene studied various qualifications in mental health awareness, mentoring and counselling which led him to discover recovery college, which is an educational pathway to recovery.

He says his second experience with the mental health services, almost 15 years after the first, was a completely different one and they are improving every day.

"We have massive awareness around it now, the stigma is breaking down", he says.

Now, just eight years after his last admission, Eugene works as a fully qualified peer support worker at the same NHS Trust that he says saved his life.

"I was in a very dark place then", he explains, "I was using drugs, there was alcohol abuse, I was ashamed and there was a lot of stigma about mental health and I didn't really think that I was going to live for too long."

"But when I came back to Birmingham and reengaged with the services, with all of the activities and stuff they've got going on today, it changed my life completely".

His message is clear, "there is hope out there, just don't give up".

What is peer support?

Peer support workers use their lived experience of mental health challenges and their empathy to support those receiving help from the mental health services.

They act as a bridge between service users and hospital staff and aim to inspire people to follow their own recovery journey.

The role is relatively new and it is still being developed as part of the Government's plan to increase access to mental health and wellbeing support services.

"I just felt like I was under a dark cloud"

Ruphsana Nahar-Qayyum is also using her own experiences of mental health to support others.

"When I became pregnant I noticed changes in myself, increased anxiety" she explains, "this led to post-natal depression after giving birth to my eldest".

This was almost twenty years ago and Ruphsana echoes Eugene in saying that the services are very different now compared to what they were back then.

She says at the time she felt forced to "struggle silently".

She suffered frequent panic attacks and her condition manifested as intrusive thoughts and behaviours resembling OCD.

"I felt like for me it was a time where I just felt like I was under a dark cloud" she explains.

"The isolation and loneliness and not feeling safe to speak to others about it especially when there were no conversations happening, you have a lot of unsolicited advice that they were giving to you but nobody was talking about the things I was experiencing", she recalls.

Ruphsana says that when things such as mental health aren't spoken about it can make people feel like they shouldn't be talking about it.

"The stigma and the taboo and how it will be received and the judgement behind it, it was really quite difficult", she adds.

Ruphsana now works as a perinatal peer support worker and helps new mothers adapt to motherhood and address any concerns they may have.

She describes her work as a "hand-holding service".

"Whatever you're going through, you don't have to go through it by yourself," she says, "I just wish someone had said that to me."

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