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Work Placement at Changes

19 October 2016

My name is Stan and I have been attending Changes Bristol groups since 2011 as well as a period as co-facilitator of the Barton Hill group. Inspired by my positive experience with Changes I decided to re-train as a mental health nurse taking a two year post-graduate diploma course at City University in London. The course allows for an elective placement outside the NHS and so I decided to come back to Changes to gain an overview of the whole organisation and what it offers.

I spent just over 10 days with Changes and in that time I attended 8 of the 10 support groups that run weekly, helped out at a Volunteer fair, attended the Boiling Wellness day, attended a development meeting, joined the Changes Facebook group, spent time in the office and spoke to staff, volunteers and members about their experience of Changes. This is what I found:

The meetings were generally well attended with an average of between 7-10 attendees. My impression was that most groups had a core of regular attendees who knew the members’ personal histories and could offer each other friendship and support but I also found the groups to be welcoming to new members and not at all cliquey.

Some themes seemed common to most groups. At nearly all meetings many people said they found mindfulness helpful. Hoarding and decluttering was also a frequent theme and one member’s advice on this inspired me to start a round of decluttering in my life. One other frequent theme was how Changes helped with members’ social isolation. This is an increasing social problem especially with many people with mental health issues lacking the social support provided by work or close family links (see the Mental Health Foundation 2012 report ‘The Lonely Society’).

I noted that some groups don’t always discuss a Module due to the numbers attending and wanting everyone to share but personally I found the module adds something extra to the group, an opportunity for discussion and sharing differing viewpoints and stops the group from being just a check-in group.

Canvassing members, volunteer and staff views revealed people happy with Changes and the impact it has on their life. Feedback from members showed that people feel attending Changes prevents relapses and the need to contact primary or secondary services.

One member said he wondered why some previous regular attendees stopped going to meetings and felt that this could be down to either an improvement or deterioration in their mental health. This brought up a discussion on whether Changes should practice some light touch follow up to missing members such as a post card, email or text.

Facilitators were generally happy with the level of training and support they received although one stated that he would like more opportunities to meet with other facilitators to share experiences.

My personal theory on Changes from my own personal experience and from this week is that the Support Groups have a very significant and positive impact. Research has shown that peer support can be just as effective as professional support and that for some it is the most significant factor in their recovery.

I also feel that there is something very special that goes on in the group process. Some benefits identified in support groups and group therapy are that the group helps you realise you’re not alone. It facilitates giving and receiving support. It helps you find your ‘voice’ and to relate to others in healthier ways. Additionally, it allows for ‘authentic connection’ in a safe environment which I think is another human need often missing in today’s society.

I believe that there is a ‘magic’ that goes with working together in a group. Hearing people’s personal stories and hard won wisdom when they support or counsel struggling members makes me very proud of what we can achieve together. On quite a few occasions during the week I witnessed members instil hope to people who were struggling by reflecting back how much they had see them progress since coming to Changes and that they were further along their recovery journey than it seemed to them at the moment.

All in all I had a positive and informative week. Everyone involved with the organisation was friendly and supportive and I met some inspiring people. So thank you all. In conclusion Changes Bristol seems to me to be in a good place. It has stable, well attended groups and is expanding at a sustainable rate. It punches well above its weight in terms of the resources invested in it so you can all be proud of yourselves. Looking toward the future, it is vulnerable as a small charity reliant on time-limited grants and could do with more diverse streams of income.

Finally an unexpected highlight for me was the weekly Boiling Wellness session at the St Werburghs City Farm site at Boiling Wells Lane. Changes members joined staff/volunteers from the farm for a four hour session where we collectively cooked and ate a meal together, picked apples, made and drank fresh apple juice and picked herbs to dry over Winter.

The session to me was not necessarily about mental health but more about wellbeing and the healing that comes from being in a beautiful natural space, interacting with a small group, doing simple but nurturing tasks together. Mental health issues did come up but in a more gentle, conversational way along with humour and support. I was there for a few hours but left feeling like I do after being on meditation retreat for a week. I would heartily recommend you visit this session if you can.