MENTAL HEALTH | May 21

The Benefits of Peer Support - My Psychosis Experience

Michael Haines

Imagine feeling completely alone in your struggle. Experiencing what is probably the biggest, scariest crisis in your life, and at the same time feeling as if there’s no one to turn to. Like nobody around or near you can understand. Unfortunately, this is far too common of a feeling in mental health.

I have experienced this feeling.  I’ve experienced feeling completely alone, like I’m swimming in the middle of a sea, lost, and barely able to keep my head above water. It’s a daunting feeling, but doesn’t have to be. What I value most about peer support is that it helps people to know that they are not alone in their struggle. It provides the comfort of knowing that someone else has been on the brink of drowning and managed to find their way back to land. A core component of peer support is using one’s lived experience to help others through whatever they are currently experiencing. I experienced a psychosis, and received services through a first episode psychosis program called E.A.S.A. (Early Assessment and Support Alliance).

During this experience, I began to lose hope in living a normal life, or any kind of life. Connecting with other people who had similar experiences to mine made a significant impact on my ability to have hope. To see others, the hope they had for themselves, and their journey to recover helped to inspire hope within myself. Hope inspires hope. Peer support can act as the beginning of that cycle, providing hope in order to inspire hope.

As a peer support specialist, I work with people to reduce their social isolation and create organic social connections. When I experienced a psychosis, I had completely withdrawn from those around me. Deeply rooted paranoia, voices, and delusions had grown so far inside me that it made going outside nearly impossible. I almost gave into these thoughts, and was prepared to spend the rest of my life, isolated, in my bedroom.

My case manager slowly worked with me to reform connections to the community. For example, at the time I couldn’t navigate large crowd settings such as busy movie theaters and grocery stores. My case manager knew I liked peanut M&M’s. So, we would go to the store together, walk to the candy aisle, get peanut M&Ms, and then leave. At first, I would barely get through the door before I needed to leave. Slowly, over time, it became easier for me to be in that crowded setting. Being exposed to those situations helped me to become comfortable with them. Having someone beside me, pushing me, made that exposure possible It is only when we step outside of our comfort zone that can we expand it.

I once thought that experiencing a psychosis meant my life was over. This kind of thinking came to me from stigmas I believed. These stigmas were implanted by the world around me about what psychosis is, and what the recovery process looks like. Stigma around mental health struggles tends to create many negative ideas in society, ideas that just aren’t true. These messages come from all around us the news media, movies, TV, and people who are misinformed on what it means to experience mental health struggles.

Often, this can lead to fear and misunderstanding for the person experiencing a mental health struggle, and the people around them. For example, when I disclosed my experience of hearing voices to a friend, their response was that they heard voices too, they just weren’t weak minded. The hurt I felt from this comment was beyond what I had felt before. They were misinformed. This misinformation meant that they didn’t know how to be a supportive friend, even though they were trying. In my work as a peer support I try to advocate for participants. Perhaps someone could have informed my friend of the hurt he caused, when I didn’t know how to talk about it. I can be present with people when the support would be appreciated. That could be in the courtroom, at appointments, or any place they might feel like their having a hard time getting their voice across.

When trying to reduce stigma around mental health, it’s important to remember that a diagnosis is not a definition. Diagnoses do not describe anything other than a unique experience that a person has with some shared qualities to others.  They don’t define a person’s future, nor do they define a person’s character. Through talking about mental health, and sharing the truth, we can defeat stigma together.

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