Over the last year, I have had the pleasure of working as a Regional Peer Researcher with the McPin Foundation on the evaluation of a project called ‘Women Side by Side’, funded by Mind (the mental health charity) and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk. This was a peer support programme responding to the needs of women experiencing multiple disadvantage, which means women experiencing several issues at once such as mental health problems, homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse, abuse and violence, and contact with the criminal justice system. The 12 month programme funded organisations to facilitate peer support initiatives, delivered for and by women, in a safe, women-only environment. My role involved working as part of the evaluation team for Women Side by Side, looking at the impact of peer support on women’s mental health and wellbeing, focusing on the projects in the North East of England.
Alongside my McPin work, I work for Apna Ghar, a Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women’s organisation in South Tyneside. When I became part of the Women’s Side by Side evaluation team, I was also working as a Project Coordinator for Apna Ghar, which was one of the projects supported by the programme. For my McPin peer research work, I visited sites in the North East and observed their peer support projects. One of these projects focused on gardening as a social activity, and I co-facilitated the gardening sessions. Later on, I conducted interviews with staff and the women, and supported staff with the evaluation questionnaire, data collection and entry.
Reaching out to women to attend the peer support groups and then to take part in the evaluation was initially quite difficult for a multitude of reasons. The primary reason was the taboo surrounding BAME mental health, which meant many of the women were reluctant to share their experiences, but also didn’t know which services were available to them or how to access them. I also had my own initial struggles in my new role at Apna Ghar following a considerable gap in employment. However, I built a good rapport with the women at Apna Ghar and the other projects over the course of a few weeks through various activities, such as coffee mornings and during their breaks in their ESOL (English as a second language) classes. And before I knew it, 15 women attended my first gardening session, which was a great turnout!
Confident to share
Previously, I would keep my own experience of mental health issues to myself and felt embarrassed to open up about them to others. In 2002, while I was expecting my second child, we unexpectedly lost our business and I had recently left my job to focus on raising my children. This was a very difficult time for me and my family, as it not only put a financial strain on us, but also a strain on my health and marriage. As a result, I suffered from severe postnatal depression. However, through working on the Women Side by Side programme, I have broken down some of my personal barriers and benefitted from having a safe space to share my issues with people who have had similar experiences. I am now more confident in my ability to share my personal experiences through effective communication, listening skills, empathy and compassion, in the hope that other people can also feel empowered to become bigger than their struggles and combat the stigma of discussing them. From conversations during my project visits, it became clear that me having some similar experiences with the women attending the groups meant that they found it comfortable to talk to me once I had shared my story with them. I was very much an ‘insider’, something that really helped when it came to doing the evaluation interviews.
Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Over the course of the project, I was required to prioritise workloads from both Apna Ghar and McPin, which became even more challenging when I became the Centre Manager of Apna Ghar in September 2019. This placed me in a unique position; I was both running my own peer support project and was part of the evaluation team for the wider programme. However, clear and effective communication with the hardworking London-based McPin team ensured I was able to balance all of my tasks with ease. While some people I interacted with along the way highlighted the potential for a conflict of interest in my roles, I found I was able to better support and create links with other peer support projects within the North East (one of the goals of the programme) in my role as a peer researcher, because I understood the challenges they faced, thanks to my project role.
Other challenges included the lack of linguistic resources. I was able to conduct some interviews in Urdu and Punjabi but generally, the differing language needs of the women involved in the projects was hampered due to a lack of materials and interpreting services at certain projects. At Apna Ghar, our project illuminated the lack of BAME counsellors in the North East providing talking therapies for a BAME community. Saiqa Naz, a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) therapist puts this very clearly in her piece ‘Deeds not words’, from December 2018, about the need to move beyond talking when it comes to BAME mental health. She writes, “Why are therapists expected to work with diverse communities without adequate support and resources? By adequate I mean basic therapy worksheets translated into other languages”.
As mentioned above, partnership working was an important aspect of the Women Side by Side programme and enabled the projects to forge valuable and lasting relationships with other organisations. For instance, Apna Ghar’s project was invited onto the Social Prescribing Network by the local Clinical Commissioning Group and was given responsibility to care for a community garden at North Marine Park as part of a regeneration project. This will enable our women to take the design and create a safe space together, which we hope to use in the future for various social activities run from the centre. Our primary focus at the centre is to ensure women have a safe space to share their experiences and build support networks.
Women Side by Side has enabled projects, like Apna Ghar, to start a journey of creating an awareness of mental health in a BAME community. It is clear and evident from our observations of the projects and evaluation that peer support does work but that there is a great need to think carefully about how to do it in a sustainable way so that projects can continue after their initial funding ceases. However, because of Covid-19, the voluntary and charitable sector has been brought to its knees, with perhaps as many as one third of small charities at risk of closing.
In order for projects to continue and provide vital services, funding will need to be allocated to charitable and grassroots organisations. For women-led mental health projects, my two roles have shown me this is #NeverMoreNeeded.
This is the third of four blogs in our series this month looking at the value of collaborative working and peer research in the evaluation of the women-led peer support programme, Women Side by Side.
Fozia Haider worked as a Regional Peer Researcher at the McPin Foundation.
The evaluators of Women Side by Side were a group of peer researchers at the McPin Foundation. The team was brought together specifically for this project along with five regional peer researchers recruited to work alongside the commissioned programme hubs in England and Wales. This meant that the evaluation was carried out by people who had similar lived experience to the women the projects were supporting, and experiential understanding of the structural and social challenges experienced by women, as a result of their gender. These experiences provide a level of insight that may not have been possible with researchers without lived experience.
Our report from Women Side by Side will be launched soon. For more information please visit this page.
Other blogs in this series:
Women Side by Side shows what can happen if women are given the space to grow
Overcoming imposter syndrome as a peer researcher