By Jason Washbourne, Changes Bristol Project Manager.
Changes Bristol evolved from the ground up, when people who had mental health issues came together to form a support group to help support each other and learn from each other. From one meeting every week, we became a charity and today we run 12 weekly groups around Bristol.
My experience with Changes Bristol began nine years ago when I had a dip in my mental health and reached out for any help I could get. Because of NHS waiting lists, Changes was the only support I could access straight away. The peer support meeting I attended was the first time I’d been somewhere and heard people talking about stuff I recognised in myself. It was liberating and I realised I wasn’t alone. It helped give me back my confidence, and a I gained a support network where I did not feel judged.
I didn’t talk at that first meeting I attended, it was too daunting, but the first step is important – taking that step to deal with your problems and make changes in your life. You can come and not say anything, listen to other people’s stories, and gradually start to trust other people; it’s about making positive changes, however small.
Over time I became a volunteer with Changes Bristol, first in the office and then facilitating the support meetings. This gave me confidence to re-enter the workplace and eventually I was offered a job with the charity.
Now I am the project manager where I oversee the charity’s work, but do hands-on stuff as well; I still help facilitate groups, although they’re generally facilitated by volunteers who we train. I still sometimes attend for my own mental health, too – it fluctuates so much over your lifetime, it’s not linear. With Changes you can come for as long as you like, and as long as you need the support. It is important that we can obtain the support we need when we need it and can move along our journey of recovery at our own pace.
Consistency is important, ensuring the support meetings are always available. People who’ve not been for years may ring and ask “Have you still got that group in Southmead?”. As peoples health fluctuates it is good to know they can still rely on the support network being there.
The understanding of mental health has massively improved, but we still see a lot of stigma. Ask people to write down what ‘physical health’ conjures in their minds, it will generally be positive – going running, the gym, walking – whereas ‘mental health’ will be about being generally negative things like depression. We’ve all got mental health, it’s about making ourselves as healthy as possible. Until we think in different ways, the stigma will always be there.
I am so grateful to Changes Bristol for helping me and our team of dedicated staff and volunteers are determined to ensure we all have access to good mental health support.
The Southmead support group is free and meets at The Greenway Centre on a Thursday evening. Just come along on a Thursday evening at 7.15 pm or for further information call Changes on 0117 941 1123 or visit changesbristol.org.uk.