Peer support is a valuable mechanism for helping people with long term conditions

For some years now the Mental Health Foundation has been interested in the links between mental health and physical health.

North of the border this has taken form of several projects looking at the mental health of people with long term conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease or COPD.

There is a well-established evidence base which indicates that people with long term conditions are at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety than the general public. Furthermore if someone with a long term condition does also experience poor mental health, then their physical health is likely to suffer further, and put bluntly, they are at higher risk of dying sooner. With the prevalence of long term conditions in our population growing steadily, particularly in areas of high deprivation, there is a good argument to be made that approaches which support the mental health of people with long term conditions should be both encouraged and prioritised.

In the Foundation we are of the view that peer support is a valuable mechanism for helping people with long term conditions to maintain and improve their mental wellbeing. A research respondent to our 2011 study exploring peer support for long term conditions in Scotland put it very succinctly when they said:

“If you have a long term condition you have so much in common with another person with a long term condition in terms of the emotional impact and challenges involved that you can identify as peers on that level.”

There is however a need to bolster the available, quality and credibility of peer support services across the country to ensure that those who want to share and learn from others with similar experiences can do so easily and effectively.

In June we delivered our first four ‘Peer Support – Making it Happen’ training courses in Edinburgh and Motherwell. These courses were designed for service managers and commissioners to raise awareness of the benefits of peer support and to act as a primer for the development of peer support services within statutory and voluntary agencies. Feedback from the training was very positive and indicates that there is an appetite for learning and knowledge in this subject area.

We are following this training up with a second course in August / September 2012 ‘Peer Support – Principles in Practice’ aimed at current peer supporters and their service co-ordinators and designed to bolster confidence and skills to deliver peer support effectively. We are also running a national networking event in September to bring together findings from the project overall, and agree how to keep the momentum going in this area of work.

One of the great joys of this project has been the opportunity to learn and share with other long term conditions organisations across Scotland. Our partnership includes (amongst others) Angus Cardiac Group, British Heart Foundation Scotland, Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, Diabetes UK Scotland, Waverley Care, RCGP Scotland, NHS Lothian and NHS Lanarkshire. We are grateful for the enthusiasm they have brought to the project and their willingness to share their knowledge and expertise to move the field forward. We are also grateful to the Long Term Conditions Alliance Scotland for funding this work. It is exciting to say it really does feel like we’re getting somewhere.