In December 2020 Changes Bristol re-opened their in-person peer support groups, in line with government guidelines. There are currently 6 physical groups open which are available to anyone – these are free of charge, open-ended (you can attend as many or as few as you need) and you do not need a GP referral or diagnosis.

Uniqueness of Changes

Jen Witts, Project Manager with Changes Bristol, shares her experiences of running the physical groups and what peer support means to her.

“I am fairly new to Changes Bristol. I started work with the charity at the beginning of 2021 and was excited to be facilitating so many new groups. Being a massive advocate for the power of sharing and talking openly about mental health, I wondered what would be different in the way that Changes Bristol runs this service.

As it happens, quite a lot! 

I’m used to sitting in perhaps more alternative circles, where we listen to people’s sharing and then move to the next person without responding in any way. This has its benefits, yet doesn’t provide the opportunity for deeper support offering fresh, different perspectives.

“Across the services we are all peers and therefore everyone has something to bring to the table”

At Changes Bristol, we have a strong ethos on eliminating hierarchy. Across the services we are all peers and therefore everyone – member, volunteer, staff, trustee – has something to offer and bring to the table. 

During the peer support groups, members share for about 10 mins – depending on the group size – and can speak about whatever they want. It is then opened up for feedback from the group. Everything is welcome, even silence if someone wants to hold the space without speaking. We ask for the feedback to be supportive, directly related to the person’s share, keeping a focus on each person’s unique situation. 

The peer support process is really powerful for both the sharer and those giving feedback. When someone shares something that is particularly vulnerable or intimate it can be extremely validating and empowering to be seen, heard, offered encouragement, as well as having their strengths and courage reflected back to them. Peer support can allow a person to see that they are not alone and in their own experience. I frequently see people visibly lifted by the support that the group process provides. 

An added bonus to peer support, is that whilst those giving feedback may be carrying their own heavy burden, by helping their peers they can feel that they have insight and wisdom. This in turn empowers that person to know that they have individual worth and value – a huge boost to self esteem.

I am constantly humbled by the level of connection that can be created between a group of people who are often strangers, by the trust that is fostered and by the transformative impact that the Changes Bristol process can have.

A regular comment by long term members is “Changes saved my life”. A strong statement, yet I have witnessed this potential many times, despite only being with the charity for a few months.”

Jen Witts is a Project Manager for Changes Bristol and facilitates many of our in-person peer support groups