‘We can relate’: how peer mentors help teenagers who self-harm
“When a peer mentor like me hears a teenager saying: ‘I feel so numb’, we can relate to that. The fact that you’ve been through the same things as them means they instinctively know that you understand them, and that helps build trust and relationships with young people who are struggling.”
Isobel Pollard is explaining why peer mentors are well-placed to play a key role in the potentially life-saving work of helping teenagers who are self-harming and thinking about suicide.
Pollard, 22, a teaching assistant, self-harmed from the age of 11 until she was 19 and also had suicidal thoughts. “When I was 17 I went into a mental health unit on 24-hour suicide watch. One of the staff said to me: ‘You look completely normal to me. Are you sure it’s not your hormones?’ That absolutely tore me apart.”
That helped convince her that people who had experienced mental health problems themselves could bring more insight, credibility and understanding than NHS staff to the task of helping under-18s who self-harm or have anxiety, depression or trauma.
“Peer mentors to a certain extent are more useful to teenagers with mental health problems than mental health nurses, psychologists, GPs or psychiatrists. They can’t comprehend the thoughts and emotions we have sometimes, which can be absolutely terrifying,” Pollard adds.
She recovered thanks to support she received at the Wish Centre, an unusual but highly successful service in the London boroughs of Harrow and Merton. Rowena Jaber, its director, says: “Our peer support groups are unique as they provide a space where young people have time to talk in a safe environment.”
The Centre for Mental Health, a thinktank, says the Wish Centre is the only service of its kind in the UK. It is unusual in that NHS staff play no role at all in providing the care, and the only NHS funding it receives is for training health service personnel. Most of its money come from donations and grants, from sources such as Comic Relief and BBC Children in Need.
Wish’s five staff – therapists as well as outreach and youth workers – work with about 200 young people a year, aged between 12 and 17, some of whom are at risk of ending their lives. Its 15 peer mentors, including Pollard, play a key role, too.
Jaber says: “We help young people who are in distress and have been through or are going through difficult life circumstances to stay safe, stop self-harming, find reasons to want to live and achieve and to feel cared for and supported.” Of its 200 clients, 78% are girls and 60% are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Stevie (not his real name), who is 13, began coming to the Wish Centre in Harrow, north London, last month. “I was cutting myself with blades, along the inside of both arms and thighs. The trigger was being bullied almost every year of my schooling. I had just had enough and didn’t know how to deal with it,” he recalls.
The bullying increased after he came out as bisexual. In one recent incident he and a friend were attacked by four teenagers, one of whom posted footage of the incident on Snapchat. “I was devastated when I saw it. I just went numb. Before that I’d not cut myself for six weeks, but the day after I cut my arms and legs.”
He comes to the charity’s office in Harrow after school every Monday to attend its self-harm peer support group. “I like having someone to talk to who knows what it’s like to feel similar emotions – depression, anxiety and paranoia. It’s somewhere I feel comfortable. I hope that will help me self-harm less or not at all,” he says. He also receives one-to-one counselling there, and also separately with NHS child and adolescent mental health services.
Shanice Grant, 25, the centre’s digital sexual exploitation specialist, works with teenage girls from the age of 12 who have been subjected to abuse, neglect, sexual assault or sexual exploitation. All have self-harmed and some have thought about suicide.
“I’m like a social worker, youth worker, parent, sexual health adviser and older sister all rolled into one,” she says. “Social media is a big trigger for bullying. Young people may consent to sexual acts but then find that footage has been posted on Snapchat or Periscope, when they didn’t know they were being filmed.
“Other times a naughty young man will get a girl to send him an explicit photograph of a sexual situation to him, like her unclothed, and circulate it via social media. That exposes the girl to humiliation.”
Over time the centre’s staff and peer mentors overcome new clients’ reluctance to open up about why they are so troubled, which often involves very traumatic events, sometimes related to their family situation.
“Our recovery rates from self-harm have been validated at between 80-90%, which is exceptional,” says Jaber. “We keep them safe and guide them to move away from self-harm as a negative and risky coping mechanism. In 14 years of our work in the community we have prevented at least 50 suicides.”
In an evaluation of the Wish Centre’s approach, published this week, the Centre for Mental Health said it had demonstrated “considerable success in helping young people turn their lives around. Part of its success is that it is attractive to young people and engages with them.”
Its work reduced the number of young people turning up at A&E due to self-harm, it found. It produced “statistically significant positive outcomes for young people in both Harrow and Merton across a range of outcomes – self-harm, suicidal ideation, abuse, trauma, anxiety/stress, depression/sadness, coping mechanisms and emotional resilience.”
The thinktank said NHS bodies and local councils everywhere should commission services based on Wish’s approach to help troubled teenagers in their area.
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.