Irene Gallagher – CEO, BEING – Mental Health Consumers
The lived experience of people is at the heart of everything we do at BEING – Mental Health Consumers. It is crucial that the consumer voice is heard in every facet of the organisation. When we were funded by the NSW Government to launch our Suicide Support and Awareness Program (as part of the Towards Zero Suicides initiative), our aim was to create something unique – designed by, tailored for, and delivered by consumers.
Critical to such work is the role of the peer facilitators, who bring their own personal knowledge and experiences of what it is like to live with mental health issues, suicidal thought and attempts.
Mutuality and reciprocity flourish through relationships formed between facilitators and group participants, grounded in a common understanding of shared experiences. It is through such unique relationships that people can share stories of hope and empowerment, and explore challenges in a way that supports new meaning to their lives. Often facilitators are seen as a role model, supporting the idea that ‘If you can get through such challenging time, then maybe I can too’. Such an environment contributes to people learning new coping skills and strategies and fosters hope and empowerment for all.
We sought input from consumers via two co-design committees: one designated for the Suicide Support and Awareness Program specifically, as well as our overarching BEING Co-design Committee. As part of this co-design process, we consulted with consumers to find out more about their experiences with existing suicide prevention programs. They told us what they felt did and didn’t work and we used these insights as the basis for our Suicide Awareness and Prevention Peer Support Groups.
After listening to consumers, we identified a gap in support services and particularly alternatives to support that is delivered by public health or mental health services, such as peer-led approaches. First and foremost, we wanted to offer these groups as a preventative measure – an early intervention to support people before they reach the point of crisis or suicide attempt.
After listening to feedback from people with their own experience of mental health issues and suicidal crisis, we determined that the Suicide Awareness and Prevention Peer Support Groups would be held in a closed group setting, meaning participants meet with the same group of people each week for the duration of the three-month pilot program. This enables participants to build connections with their peers and to gain the confidence over time to explore conversations on suicidality within a culturally safe and trauma informed space.
Consumers told us loud and clear they wanted the groups to be run by peer facilitators – people with their own experiences of mental health issues and suicidal crisis. This really echoes one of our mottos at BEING – Mental Health Consumers – ‘We’ve been there, we get it’.
We believe peer group facilitators are fundamental to these groups and can use their own experiences to inspire hope and recovery for others, while guiding group discussions around suicidal experiences and other forms of emotional distress.
We trained and prepared our peer group facilitators by running an intensive, seven-day education program tailored specifically for suicide support. The co-designed course aimed to equip peer group facilitators to share wellness strategies and establishing boundaries (both personal and professional). The course itself focused on shared learning and was peer-led meaning it was developed, designed, delivered and evaluated by consumers.
The Suicide Awareness and Prevention Peer Support Groups kicked off in early February, in five locations in NSW. With a strong governance structure in place, we will continue to evaluate the program as it progresses, and we are in the process of seeking ethics approval with the intention to produce a paper at the conclusion of the pilot period.
If you would like to find out more about BEING – Mental Health Consumers and the Suicide Support and Awareness Program, please visit: https://being.org.au/suicide-support-awareness-program/
If you need urgent help there are crisis services available 24/7. Call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.