Alexandra Hodge, of Wanaka, who has set up the Wanaka Mental Health Peer Support Group, is making the experience of mental health less solitary.
The group was an example of ‘‘intentional peer support’’ which began in the United States and was a growing movement in New Zealand, she said.
The former Californian arrived in Wanaka about two and a-half years ago and initially worked in hospitality.
While discussing mental health issues with friends, she felt there was a need for people to be able to gather in a supportive environment.
Friends she spoke to who were also in hospitality were ‘‘largely a traveller crowd’’ who had less access to or knowledge about what medical or support services were available, she said.
With her own history of mental health challenges, setting up the group was a big step for her.
‘‘It took me about a year overcoming my own anxiety about starting the group.’’
Finally, after encouragement from her partner and other friends, she took the plunge.
‘‘It was the boost I needed, so I pushed through that and decided to make it a mental health peer support group in general, not one specific need.’’
In February last year the group began meeting every fortnight at the Plunket room in Ardmore St.
‘‘Essentially the group is just a non-judgemental safe space — people come as they are, no pretence, no mask.’’
The aim was to ensure people felt comfortable.
‘‘They can share as much or as little as they like.’’
The structure of the group began with an opening meditation, and then a reminder of the rules — it was a confidential setting, no judgements and only positive encouragement.
There seemed to be a ‘‘big gap in needs’’ and she hoped the group would fill some of those gaps.
‘‘Traditional services have let people fall through the cracks.’’
This was especially noticeable in rural communities.
‘‘People go to Dunedin for emergency services, but come back to Wanaka and there is this void,’’ she said.
Otago Mental Health Support Trust team manager Grant Cooper, of Dunedin, said the trust had helped the group with a small amount of funding for training and meeting costs.
Sharing stories with people who had their own experience of mental stress had positive benefits, he said.
‘‘Not only sharing your stories, but sharing what’s helped for you as well.’’ Mr Cooper said.
The Southern District Health Board was aiming to incorporate more peer support into its system.
SDHB independent chairman mental health and addictions network leadership group John MacDonald said a forum held recently in Dunedin brought together about 70 people including families, individuals, community groups and organisations to discuss how to enable intentional peer support to become more established across Otago and Southland.
A peer ‘‘with a similar lived experience’’ could help someone experiencing mental distress or addiction.
Being able to ‘‘listen with an understanding ear’’ could ‘‘nurture hope and inspire them to move forward in their lives’’, Mr MacDonald said.
The Wanaka Mental Health Peer Support Group will next meet on Tuesday, June 11 at 6pm at the Plunket room in Ardmore St.
Recently Jade Howe, of Wanaka, has joined Miss Hodge to help with the group.
She has been organising walks followed by coffee and tea, and these will become regular monthly activities.
The next walking group will be on June 29 at 10am, meeting at Monkey Farm in Northlake.
★ For details visit www.fb.com/WanakaMentalHealthPeerSupportGroup