The Elephant in the online community – mental health peer support for adults

Online peer support for mental health at Mind

Yesterday I attended a session run by Mind on online peer support – helping users of the eleElephant (in the room)’ community on Facebook develop their skills in supporting each other. I was interested in attending as I had been chatting to Eve, one of the trainers (and ‘Elephant handlers’) on Twitter. The work they are doing has lots of links to similar work I am doing – and developing – at YouthNet on TheSite.org.

I was also interested from a more personal angle. I was hoping to find out more about the peer support services for mental health which are offered, not just to young people, but to everyone. I’ve certainly found that in writing about my own experiences with mental health, others have come forward to share their experiences and discuss the issues with me. I’m impressed by the strategic objective of Mind to give everyone access to peer support, on or offline, by 2016. The session itself only highlighted the value of peer support, with everyone sharing their stories and offering new perspectives and ideas to each other throughout the training day. It was also interesting that there was a strong sense in the room that, while young people tend to be well served, there is not enough emotional support online for mental health for adults.

A shift in attitude towards understanding the benefits of online support

We also discussed the increasing shift in attitude among organisations and counselling bodies towards the benefits of online counselling and support for mental health. It’s even more amazing now to think that when YouthNet applied to the charity commission 16 years ago, the feedback received was that there was ‘no need for online information, advice and support’.

An organic community

What I found really interesting from a community development and management perspective was how the community had grown. The Elephant in the Room was a campaign around mental health in the workplace that Mind ran. The Elephant’s profile on Facebook was set up as part of that – the elephant of course being a metaphor for the great unspoken stigma around mental health and employment. What happened was that, mainly through word of mouth, a community of peers looking for support developed around Ele’s profile. Now Ele has 4500 friends and growing, with a lot of activity each day. My colleague Helen often emphasises that in order for a new online community to thrive, it needs to fill a gap and address a real need. Otherwise noone will have any genuine and ongoing incentive to get involved. It seems to me to be an excellent example of a community developing to meet an obvious need – focussed mental health peer support in a social media space where people spent the most time – Facebook. And now, the organisation has received extra funding to develop the community and further train some of those involved – as a big step towards that peer support strategic objective.  It felt great to be part of the beginnings of a community, where everyone was finding their feet, exploring how and why they used the site and working out what guidelines and boundaries might work for them.

Peer support from  ‘experts by experience’

Experts by experience is how Mind sees those involved in their community. This training was open to anyone, aimed at making those who use the community more confident in offering peer support with users. In the past at TheSite.org, we have offered training to those wanting to take part in specific volunteer peer supporting roles – moderating, peer advising,chat modding etc. While being peers of the young people using our services, by choosing to volunteer in a support role, they would not also use the services. This isn’t to say they wouldn’t benefit from their training and involvement – as the latter half of this slideshow shows, our volunteers benefit personally, gaining emotional as well as practical skills.

The idea of offering training to members of the community to help them help each other is a newer one. We’ve recognised that many of our young users have been active members of our community for a long time. They spend much of their time supporting others rather than looking for help themselves and would enjoy and benefit from learning how to better do this. We are developing some ‘peer supporter’ training to address this need. This too is the type of training Mind was offering. Those attending were not volunteering for a defined role, but looking to improve their experience in the community, and help others.

What is the impact on individuals experiences?

An area to bear in mind when developing training or support in this ‘informal’ way is the question of how offering peer support training to users might affect their involvement and how they use the community themselves. Is it likely to give users an increased feeling of responsibility, to almost accidentally formalise what previously they were doing exactly when and how they felt comfortable with? There was certainly concern about boundaries, responsibilities and safeguarding in the Mind training – but I wonder how much of this was down to the fact the community was in its infancy anyway, and this was one of the first times issues like this had been discussed.

While we’ll be learning as we go, I tend to think that overall the effect will be a very positive one for both YouthNet and Mind. Developing interpersonal support skills and increasing engagement with each other and with the purpose and ideals of the community will serve to develop a greater sense of ownership and an improved understanding of others users’ needs. But it feels like it is certainly something for trainers – and ‘official’ moderators – to bear in mind when they develop and support the community and those trained members.

It will be also be interesting to see whether our offering the training online rather than face to face makes a difference to how users view it. Those of our community who might be interested in the training might well be much more comfortable maintaining some of that virtual anonymity that online training enables. Upskilling online might also impact on how a peer supporter feels about the impact of gaining new skills – might the informal nature of online training help them to feel more like they are just gaining additional skills rather than taking on the responsibility of a new role? We’ll have to see.

I thought the Mind training I attended managed this very well, particularly given the early stages of the Ele community. While they had a basic structure and activities, when it was apparent that people really wanted to share their own stories, give each other peer support in the room and air more general concerns and worries about the community, this was given priority. As a result, as well as starting to enhance peoples skills, the group also felt like it was becoming something more like our TheSite.org Leaders role – discussing and debating ideas to shape the development of the community itself. It was a great thing to be part of and it will be really interesting to see how it develops, especially as we grow our own peer supporter role too.

3 thoughts on “The Elephant in the online community – mental health peer support for adults

  1. Pingback: Online consultation with Mind’s Elefriends community | Clare Rose

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