Peer Mentoring and Online Support for People with Mental Health Problems

01 Feb 2016


Eve Critchley is Mind’s Digital Community Manager. She works on Elefriends.org.uk, the mental health social network, and Mind’s peer support programme, which brings people together to share experiences. You can find her on Twitter @EveGwendo.

You don’t have to look far to find scare stories about the internet and mental health. Facebook is destroying our self esteem, we can’t switch off and there are scammers and trolls at every turn. And when it comes to mental health, the internet can be a difficult place to be. When you’re feeling low or vulnerable, it can be hard to stay away from the kind of content that makes you feel worse.

But what we hear less about is how the internet brings people with mental health problems together, links you to lifesaving information and services, or plugs you into the tools and apps that help you to take better care of yourself.

But of course, it’s not always that easy. Despite smartphones getting cheaper and broadband access widening, many still don’t have the hardware they need, let alone the confidence or skills. For years, our network of local Minds have been helping their communities to develop online skills, ensuring they can maximise the opportunities digital offers them. From accessing benefits, employment and support online to using digital tools to support wellbeing, local Minds across England and Wales offer digital support in an environment their beneficiaries know and trust.

As an extension of this, we’re excited to be working with Good Things Foundation on the Reboot UK project, exploring the effect on a person’s wellbeing of this digital inclusion and investigating how peer support can better support digital skills learning. Across three local Minds in London and Leeds, we’re using the power of peer networks to engage and encourage. Because increasing digital access and confidence isn’t just about giving people access to help and advice. It’s also about changing how mental health services and support is delivered.

One of the Reboot projects demonstrates this perfectly. Workplace Leeds (which sits within Leeds Mind) provides employment support to people with mental health problems, through one-to-one training and group activities. Like many mental health services, Workplace Leeds have learnt that peer mentoring can play a really important role in helping people, whether that’s in preparing for an interview, navigating the mental health system or in learning new digital skills.

Peter Reffell, IT tutor at Workplace Leeds, believes that gaining basic digital skills can make a big difference to people’s broader health and wellbeing, not least by helping them to access healthcare services and therapies through the web. But Peter says that before they start delivering any training they need to convince people that gaining digital skills will be useful.

“We know that taking an informal peer mentoring approach is far more effective than teaching in a conventional environment, where people feel less confident asking questions. Also the peers are people’s friends, so it’s less daunting than a stranger telling them what to do” said Peter.

As Digital Community Manager, I’m lucky enough to work on Mind’s online community, Elefriends. Every day, we see new people joining the ‘herd’ and getting a warm welcome from others who’ve been there too. For many, being listened to and understood will be the first step towards feeling better, or at least better able to cope with the difficult days.

We often talk about ‘real’ life, as opposed to being online, but Elefriends is a real community. Living with mental health problems can be exhausting and it often takes a toll on your physical health and the services and support in the offline world aren’t always very accessible when you’re struggling with your mental health. When you’re running on barely any sleep, perhaps also feeling the effects of medication, 9-5 often isn’t doable. And social anxiety can make travelling to unfamiliar places and meeting new people overwhelming.

While online support will never replace the experience of talking to a counsellor or therapist face to face, or the warm welcome you’ll find in one of our local Minds, it can be just as transformative.

Too many people won’t give online support a try because they’re not a ‘technical’ person. But with someone alongside and a good incentive, this shouldn’t hold anyone back. Peer mentoring (at a local Mind or at another UK online centre) could lead to someone being able to access 24 hour online support through Elefriends - I’ve seen quite a few people join Elefriends with the support of a befriender, despite never having had a Facebook account or email address.

And it works the other way too: some people who have been through Reboot UK are now using Elefriends, telling others all about the support they received through their local Mind. This peer signposting makes the step from online to offline a little less daunting, highlighting the benefits of face to face support and demonstrating how barriers or fears can be overcome.

It’s so important that the different kinds of support are joined up - through Reboot, local Minds, and Elefriends. And there’s more we need to do so that people with mental health problems can access a wide range of support in the way that works best for them.

Find out more about the Reboot UK project here