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Pauline Nevin works for Health Action Trust in Nelson and is the coordinator for COMPASS Peer Support and Advocacy Service. It’s a service about people who have experienced mental health problems supporting others in their journey.
Each day two peer support workers from COMPASS visit Nelson Marlborough Health’s Wahi Oranga mental health admission unit to connect with people and let them know about their service. Sometimes this includes being an advocate for people and ensuring their rights are being met. Once a week they do the same at other district health board and community mental health services.
“People like talking with us because we know what it’s like to be in their place or stand in their shoes, and because they can see there is life after a mental health diagnosis,” Pauline says.
People can self-refer and COMPASS will work with anyone who identifies as having a mental health issue or addiction. Sometimes it is people having difficulty accessing services or it might be people who have been discharged from a mental health service who don’t have a lot of support.
“It’s a wide range of work and includes assisting people wanting advocates when dealing with WINZ or CYFS, the courts or lawyers. Sometimes people just want to talk about their journey – our journey – in a mutual way. Peer support is very much based on mutual relationships.”
COMPASS uses the Intentional Peer Support model which focuses on creating relationships through which people can grow, moving away from fear towards hope and possibility. The emphasis is on what works for each individual and there is less emphasis on a ‘helper’ role.
“When people have a mental health issue, especially if they end up in an inpatient unit, a lot of their personal power is taken away,” Pauline says.
“So instead of coming in as experts and saying you should do this or that, we approach as an equal. What are our possibilities? Where could life take us? What could we learn together?”
Pauline is an occupational therapist and has worked in a range of mental health services in both New Zealand and the UK. She started at Health Action Trust in 2011 and became coordinator in 2013.
What excites and inspires her about the work is seeing people grow and discover their own ways of dealing with their issues.
“For me it’s about giving people the opportunity to talk with someone who ‘gets it’, but it also gives some meaning to my own diagnosis as having bi polar, which is seen as a life-long thing requiring daily medication. I was quite sold on that until I got into peer support work, heard other people’s stories and learned that wasn’t necessarily so.”
Pauline, now 49, says the diagnosis at age 28 had quite an impact and it took some time for her to get her head around it. However, she learned to deal with it through a long process of self-discovery, determination and growing self-awareness.
“Learning mindfulness was key to this, being able to put my inner critic where it belongs and appreciate the beauty of the moment. Practising mindfulness is healthy exercise for the brain that builds one’s resilience. This, along with other healthy living practices and having a great support network, has led to minimal need for medication. Working in peer support has taught me a whole range of skills and tools that I didn’t learn working as a clinician.
“The supportive work environment I am in really helps too. Everyone understands, so it’s ok to have a mental health day as a reason for using sick leave and there is flexibility around work hours if needed.”
Pauline frequently uses her lived experience in her work, but does so in a thoughtful rather than overbearing way. She doesn’t necessarily bring it up but if someone is experiencing similar things she may ask them whether they’d like to hear about what’s worked for her or for people she’s seen in situations like theirs.
She believes a lot more peer support and advocacy work is needed in the future.
“I think it’s a wonderful model and people gain a lot from it, but many don’t know how to access it. Some don’t even know we exist. We also know some people don’t yet understand what we do and wonder why they would seek help from people who are ‘as unwell as me’.
“Health Action Trust also has a peer-led respite service and some people have said things like this before going there. Once they arrive they find it’s really good. The people working there have lived experience and they’re doing a job. The peers are just like anyone else, but they have the empathy to do this type of work.”
She thinks it’s great that Rising to the Challenge and Blueprint II recognise the need for more peer support services. It’s an acknowledgement of the importance of people not feeling alone in their journey and the benefits of working alongside someone in a mutual way.
“The whole intention of peer support is that we are able to connect because we’ve been in the same or a similar situation, and no amount of training can compare to living it.”