Interview with Sarah Markham by Dr Kathryn Watson
Women Side by Side is a programme led by Mind and Agenda, the Alliance for Women and Girls at Risk, has funded 68 grassroots projects across England and Wales through the tampon tax funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and aims to increase the provision of effective peer support for women experiencing, or at risk of developing, mental health problems. It focusses on women experiencing ‘multiple disadvantage’, such as homelessness, violence and contact with the criminal justice system. McPin is involved in carrying out an external evaluation of this project, and formed an advisory group as well as recruited a team of peer researchers. The latter are involved in observing peer support groups and interviewing individuals and staff attending these groups.
Hi Sarah! Why did you want to get involved in this project?
It was so important for me to become involved with Women Side by Side, because it provided me with the opportunity to make positive use of the pain I had experienced throughout my adult life, as someone with chronic mental health issues.
What has your work involved on Women Side by Side?
I am fortunate to be a member of the five women-strong, evaluation advisory group for this project. The group has been led by Humma Andleeb, who has provided us with excellent guidance and support. We have met four times, at strategic points throughout the programme. Our role has been to advise on the ethics of the project's observation methodology, access to the peer support groups, the recruitment of the peer researchers and the refinement of the data collection tools, including the stakeholder interview schedules.
A couple of us also took part in interviewing prospective peer researchers, which was an incredible experience! I personally was amazed by the expertise and resilience of the applicants. Interestingly, during one of our meetings, one of the peer researchers we appointed gave us an idea of the complexities and challenges she had encountered in her role. These included uncertainties in how to set up and maintain healthy boundaries and how to establish trust. Even though she was a peer researcher, which meant she had some background in common with the beneficiaries of the programme, she could still be viewed as an ‘outsider’ in the project peer support groups.
Going forward, we will be advising and contributing to the dissemination of the evaluation's findings.
Why do you think it was important that only women were recruited to the evaluation team?
Many of the women being supported by the peer support initiatives may have experienced or are currently experiencing male aggression and/or violence. Therefore, it was crucial to recruit women as advisory group members and peer researchers, to help create an environment that felt safer for these individuals.
Were there any other important factors to be considered, apart from being a woman?
Absolutely. In addition to being female, all of us on the evaluation advisory group have experience and understanding of adversity, especially in the context of mental health issues and/or multiple disadvantage. We also have experience of accessing or working in peer support contexts.
These shared experiences have truly united our advisory group and created a positive vibe, despite our different backgrounds and ages, among many other characteristics. Each of us has brought different experiences and ideas to the group, but through our readiness to explore each other's perspectives and learn from each other, we have supported each other and avoided any negativity or tension.
Having shared experiences with peer support group members also enables us to better understand and empathise with their experiences, for example, their sense of alienation and isolation. This enriched the quality of our discussions.
What are you hoping will come out of this project?
The research being carried out in Women Side by Side will hopefully improve our understanding of how peer support can positively impact the mental health and well-being of women experiencing multiple disadvantage. This is particularly important as many support services tackling these disadvantages, for example, homelessness and substance abuse services, do not address women’s needs sufficiently because they rarely use gender-responsive approaches. The research will also establish how the mental health and women’s sectors can work in partnership effectively, and how this can increase the capacity of grassroots organisations. The project report will definitely make for fascinating reading.
Will you take away anything from this work?
Seeing the extent to which women want to and can support each other has left me feeling truly inspired.
Sarah Markham, a patient and researcher, is a member of McPin's external evaluation advisory group for the Women Side By Side project.