Highlighting the power of peer support in mental illness recovery

Report: Professor Agnes Higgins (left) with Mike Watts and Patricia Gilheaney, CEO of Mental Health Commission.

Peer support can play a crucial part in recovery from mental illness – that’s according to a Galway native who is one of the country’s most respected voices in this field.

Trinity College Professor in Mental Health, Agnes Higgins, reported her findings after carrying out in-depth interviews with 26 people who went through just such a peer support programme with mental health charity GROW.

Those interviewed had

mental health difficulties including bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression.

The research – carried out with Dr Mike Watts – shows that, although medical treatment and mental health professionals can be a vital start to recovery, mental health problems can also be resolved through peer and community support as well as everyday social interactions.

The study showed that while peer support has long been valued in recovery from various addictions it remains an under used strategy within a mental health system that is currently under serious resource pressures.

The research findings and stories have been published as a book entitled Narratives of Recovery from Mental Illness.

Research in mental health has been something Agnes has been involved in for a number of years.

She met her co-author Mike Watts, when he was national coordinator for GROW and he was interested in doing a PhD.

“Given my interest and passion for mental health and the absence of research evidence in the area peer support, we decided that the focus of the PhD should be in this area,” she explained.

And because of the importance of the subject matter, the pair then decided to craft their findings into a book.

Participants in the study described how life experiences such as bullying, abuse, bereavement, isolation or family disharmony led to a slow build-up of distress leading to emotional chaos.

Agnes explains that without someone to listen to and deal with the resultant trauma ‘powerful emotions of terror, rage and despair impacted on each person’s thinking and behaviour’ so they began to mistrust life and became trapped in a spiral of personal isolation and what was termed ‘dialogues of terror’.

The non-hierarchical culture of a peer support group within GROW resulted in people immersing in ‘dialogues of healing’.

“They found themselves developing trust, becoming hopeful, experiencing a sense of personal value and belonging, and the nurturing of the beginnings of personal empowerment,” she said.

She sees the book as offering an alternative way of looking at mental illness and demonstrates many unexplored avenues and paths to recovery that need to be considered.

“The narratives of recovery should also be a source of hope to people struggling with ‘mental illness’ and emotional distress,” she said.

Part of the challenge in transforming mental health services is the lack of evidence-based studies focussing on the process and outcomes of peer support services.

“We hope that it will encourage practitioners to include peer support within the menu of recovery options offered to people with a mental health problem”, Agnes declares.

Agnes Higgins grew up on a farm in Kilmurry, Dunmore, the middle child of seven. She went to national school in Ballinlass and finished secondary school in 1978. Her father, Mick, passed away in 1986 and her mother, Mary, still lives in Kilmurry.

Agnes wanted to be a teacher but she explains that “in those days you applied for lots of things” and she was accepted for the first student nurse position she applied for.

“The people who interviewed me were so welcoming, warm, and kind that I didn’t hesitate for a minute in my decision”, says Agnes. Her nurse training began in 1978 at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin and she qualified as a mental health nurse in 1981.

Later, Agnes trained as a general nurse and qualified in 1986. From 1990 – 1993 she trained and qualified as a nurse teacher and then went on to do a masters in Dublin City University and a PhD in Trinity College.

In 2000 Agnes was offered a position in the School of Nursing and Midwifery in TCD. Her first role was to develop a postgraduate diploma in clinical health sciences education, “this programme was to educate nurse and midwifery teachers,” she explained.

This work led to Agnes receiving the Provost Award for Teaching Excellence within the college; now, as Professor in Mental Health, she lectures on the subject to Trinity undergraduate and postgraduate students.