Why peer support works for mums with mental health problems

1. You feel less alone – There is nothing more lonely than tending to a crying baby through the small hours of a dark dark night. Especially if you have no partner, or if they have returned to work. If your mental health is spiralling, it can be extremely hard to talk to anyone, when they assume you are glowing with gratitude and new found purpose and peace. Just being with other people who are struggling too goes some way to breaking the powerful spell of the darkness.

2. There is some balance to the wormhole of self-loathing – It is amazing how far we can tunnel in our own minds, from sadness to shame, from shame to despair. And because we struggle to articulate this hellish journey, it is impossible for anyone to pull us back. If we manage to speak of it to others, we often find a little ledge of hope we can climb back up from.

3. You can say the unsayable – One of the problems with speaking out about mental health problems around motherhood, is the fear that your feelings are wrong. You might feel regret at your choices, at having your child, you might not feel love or bond, you might feel irrational rage at your baby’s cries. One of the themes women raise at Happy Mums is the fact they can say things other people would be shocked and even horrified by without judgement.

4. Other people have experienced similar things – Nobody’s story is ever the same as yours, but most of the time someone has something they can relate to. This helps you feel less alone, less shocking, more understandable. It’s as if by sharing some of your darkness, others bring it into the light. For many it is easier finding the positives in someone else’s story, being compassionate to them is easier than being kind to yourself.

5. Practical support – time and time again the women in our groups step in and offer practical help to the problems of parenting. Whether it’s having someone to go to the swimming pool with, knowing which baby groups are friendly, how to get tax credits or council tax relief, often there is someone with helpful words of advice, or offers of assistance.

6. Just being listened to and accepted is enough – Having said that about practical support, many of the problems we have aren’t practical and don’t have an easy solution. In those cases it’s really important we don’t try to fix each other. Sometimes being there and listening, accepting your words at face value and acknowledging how tough it is can really help.

7. Group members aren’t your loved ones – This is a key point and really enables most of the other benefits already mentioned. By being at a slight distance, group members can hear your darkest thoughts without being so drawn in either to fixing, blaming, or desperately trying to help. They can also see things with a different, wider perspective. When you are experiencing a mental health crisis those closest to you are often the hardest to reach out to. You fear their distress or anger. They feel guilt and aching pity, and are often bound up in the problems you are experiencing.

8. You matter for you, not just as a mother – A lot of attention is focussed on new mothers and pregnant women. But as I have said before, not a lot of it sees you as important just as yourself. You are a conduit of care: your difficulties matter because they stop you from parenting effectively and safely. You produce adverse or positive childhood experiences. The child is necessarily put at the centre of health professionals’ input. This is only right, as children do not have a voice of their own. But peer support starts with mothers and women and says they are worthy of concern, they deserve to be happy for themselves. And paradoxically, by focussing on women, their ability to parent improves and the children benefit too.

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