by Laurie Beach, Peer Mentor Coordinator
As I’m sure almost all of us do, I think every day about how it must be for some of the most vulnerable people in our society whilst we all face the challenges coronavirus has brought.
That is especially the case for probation. I work for the Cheshire & Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company (CGM CRC) and know from personal experience that many of our service users feel trapped. Many will be in poor accommodation, with children and no private outside space. Many will have acute financial worries because they can no longer work. Yet more will have increased difficulties in collecting prescriptions for mental health illnesses – which adds more anxiety into the mix. And others we work with, particularly our women service users, will be in fear and be suffering from actual violence because domestic abuse has increased so dramatically. There’s also the loneliness factor and the effects of a lack of routine that will be impacting people.
I count myself as one of the lucky ones; with a garden and countryside walks on our doorstep and no one close who has been seriously ill. It is also a huge relief to know I have a job and understanding managers who are supporting me while I look after three small children at home.
Putting ourselves in the place of others is an important way to understand, connect and support people. I am proud of the volunteers that I support as part of my role, people who have ‘lived experience’, who offer support to our service users. The Integrated Healthcare in Custody and Wider Liaison and Diversion Service (IHCWLDS) recruits Peer Mentor Volunteers to do just this. Also, this week (1st June – 7th June 2020) is Volunteers’ Week, so what better time to celebrate the work of our Peer Mentor Volunteers!
The vast majority of peer mentors have been arrested, been on Probation or in Prison and have experienced other vulnerabilities too, such as, homelessness, domestic and other abuse, mental health illness, drug and alcohol misuse and so on. They have all demonstrated how they have made significant positive changes in their lives and have maintained these changes over months and years. I’ve been in my role as Peer Mentor Coordinator for more than two-years and have been genuinely inspired by the passion of, and commitment to, helping others that I’ve seen from this group of staff. I have been astounded by the achievements they have made by overcoming and dealing with some unimaginable challenges in their lives.
There are examples of people who have experienced years of violence and prison who are now at university with clear career goals, others who have misused substances or alcohol resulting in homelessness, who are now in stable accommodation, have jobs and are in happy, secure relationships. I am extremely proud of my team.
So, does someone with lived experience really make a difference? One of our former volunteers, who has since been successful in gaining a paid role within the IHCWLDS, was asked to work with a female service user and was warned that she could be ‘difficult’ and was unlikely to engage. Whilst initially our service user was reluctant, once the peer mentor disclosed that she had been in prison herself, the service user completely changed and engaged really well. If the peer mentor hadn’t made this initial connection, she would have been unlikely to have gone on to support the Service User to make changes as she did. Our peer mentor supported her through a court case and ensured she attended hospital and GP appointments. Sharing this sort of personal information allows those with ‘lived experience’ to build a level of trust and breaks down the ‘us and them’ barrier an average professional working with someone can often face. This means our service users are more likely to open up and we may learn something very important that we are then able to help with; a safeguarding issue or vulnerability we didn’t know about.
Similarly, as our peers work within the community, there is no desk between people, no formal Probation Office environment, just two people sharing their stories and someone who can genuinely empathise and understand whilst motivating and inspiring positive change, making change seem like a real possibility. Imagine how much more motivational and inspirational someone can be if they can say ‘I’ve been there’, ‘I know how it feels’ and describe how they made changes, how difficult it might have been, what drove them to succeed and how life is better now. Seeing the evidence in front of us is often better than just hearing the theory.
Our peer mentors are trained to listen and have insight into what it’s like being a service user by reflecting on their own experiences. They learn to not collude but to acknowledge a person’s feelings and help them identify what they want from life and work out how to take the steps towards this.
We all do valuable jobs within probation and IHCWLDS, but adding to that value by appreciating and utilising the experiences of our colleagues with ‘lived experience’ enables us to really engage and help rehabilitate and improve a person’s wellbeing so much more.
If a person is well and happy, they are much less likely to offend.
During COVID-19, our peer mentors are working to support our services users over the phone as well as researching resources in their local areas which may be helpful during this time of crisis.
We need more Peer Mentor Volunteers, so if you think you have what it takes, or know someone who does, please do get in touch with me at: [email protected]
All of PMVs go through the same onboarding process as any member of staff and are required to obtain an enhanced DBS check followed by a full risk assessment. They also receive full training and supervision.
Our team offers hope to those who need understanding and who benefit from someone who can invest quality time in people, to those who may be at the darkest point in their life. They can help people see a way through with their own, real examples, genuinely inspiring change and giving hope.
Peer Mentor Coordinator
GM Integrated Healthcare in Custody and Wider Liaison and Diversion Service