Preston's PeerTalk support group: 'Mental health isn't black and white and that’s okay'
Rosa Trelfa, Director of Operations for national charity PeerTalk, which runs weekly volunteer-facilitated support groups for people living with mental health issues, is unambiguous. “As a society, we’re better than we we’re but there’s still a massive stigma around mental health,” she says. “There’s a long way to go.”
Started in 2014 and initially funded by Methodist Church with designs on becoming independent, PeerTalk became a registered charity in 2016 and, aiming to form a network of groups to help challenge archaic attitudes towards mental health, started running meetings in 2017.
Having gone on to train 195 volunteers and host a total of 12 support groups including three in Preston, the charity’s ultimate vision was to run 100 groups within ten years. But, due to the coronavirus outbreak and much to Rosa’s chagrin, all group meetings are currently cancelled, with PeerTalk offering help and resources via a weekly email.
“People’s sense of normality and safety went out the window overnight, so responses of caution and grief are normal,” says Rosa of the pandemic. “There’s a blanket of fear over the nation, but people are resilient and can process everything if given the time, space, and permission to do so without being made to feel weak.
“It’s frustrating not being able to help people face-to-face and we think there’s going to be an even greater need as we come out of lockdown,” adds Rosa, who is based in Preston and who, as a trained counsellor and former PeerTalk volunteer, usually works as a facilitator across all three Preston groups. “People are going to need to talk.”
One of the key points Rosa raises is the importance of language, pointing out that one of the parts of PeerTalk’s on-going training for facilitators is centred on how we perceive people who are having a tough time.
“People aren’t ‘ill’,” explains Rosa, who has been with the charity for four years. “We don’t use the language of illness and disorder because it’s natural. The wrong is in the situation. Language matters and that’s where the stigma comes from: how our society feels a need to couch difficulty with labels.
“I cringe at terms like ‘mentally ill’ because illness implies that there’s something wrong with you,” she adds. “’Wrong’ doesn’t apply to mental health and emotions and people want a fast-food quick fix, but that’s not how it works. We will all face grief and it doesn’t go away with a pill, it gets better over time with support.
“I’m not dissing medication - it can be helpful - but there’s more to it than a pill,” Rosa continues. “It’s far-reaching; it’s emotional, psychological, socio-economic. It’s not black and white and that’s okay.”
Insisting that society needs to focus more on the underlying issues and causes - however complex they may be - of emotional and mental health issues, Rosa says that they often see the aftermath of ‘sometimes-inappropriate management of sheer human distress’ at PeerTalk. “It makes me angry, but I have to focus on how PeerTalk can help frame distress in human terms,” she says.
Dead-set on working to combat any corrosive discourse so that people feel comfortable asking for help, Rosa brings up a national newspaper headline last year calling children learning about mindfulness in school snowflakes. “That’s not helpful; it’s judgemental. It strengthens the stigma and might lead someone to not seek help because they unconsciously think, ‘I’m a snowflake if I try mindfulness’,” Rosa says, exasperated. “We all need a bit of support sometimes.”
Saying she still has burning passion for the work, Rosa adds: “When you see a group functioning, it’s priceless: seeing people sharing and being accepted for who they are, as they are, and being supported so they walk out feeling better.
“Ideally, we’d all be redundant,” Rosa says. “But I’m driven knowing it makes a difference.”
For more information and to find a group to attend once lockdown is safely lifted, head to https://peertalk.org.uk/