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Service in Focus – peer mentoring

21 August 2014

Carl and Desmond
Thames Reach worker Carl Hutson (left) is pictured with service user Desmond Healey.

Service in Focus highlights the innovative work of Thames Reach and how the lives of the people in individual projects are being transformed.

In this piece, the latest of a series of feature-length articles, Thames Reach Communications Team volunteer Amy Muu looks at two Peer Mentoring services, Employment Academy Southwark Engagement (EASE) and the Financial Support Service (FSS) both based at the Thames Reach Employment Academy.

“I was working in a factory. I was doing well but decided to go into publishing because, you see, I had a stupid artistic streak. But it didn’t pay well. So then I thought I’d get my driving licence and be a delivery driver. But the thing is I have a lousy sense of direction.”


Desmond Healey, 60, looks happy and relaxed. He is talking about his work history and thinking about the next steps forward. He is a client of the Employment Academy Southwark Engagement (EASE) scheme that offers Southwark residents with mental health issues one-to-one support to get back to work. This includes practical assistance such as CV-writing, advice around where to look for jobs, training in interview techniques and access to voluntary positions. What makes this scheme different from other employment services, however, is that its support comes through ‘peer mentors’: volunteers who have been through similar difficulties and who have suffered from mental health problems. Set up in March 2012, EASE is funded by the Southwark Mental Health Innovation Fund.


Previously, Desmond was also a client on the Financial Support Service (FSS). This scheme, also based at the Employment Academy, offers the same one-to-one support from peer mentors but around financial issues. Unlike EASE which provides on-going, long-term help, FSS is a shorter intervention scheme designed to tackle specific difficulties.


Desmond was referred to FSS after receiving a sanction from the Job Centre for missing an appointment. A sufferer of depression, anxiety and memory loss, Desmond was finding it difficult to cope.


Through regular meetings with his peer mentor, Assad Amin, over a 4-week period, Desmond managed to appeal the sanction and get back the money he was owed.


“Assad was very helpful and friendly. It’s a good service. It got me out of a terrible hole,” Desmond said.


Assad said: “The payback is the same on both sides, regardless of outcome.” Coming from a finance background, Assad is currently self-employed and enjoys spending his free time helping others. “If each person I see walks away having gained something, I’ll be happy. The fact [the mentees] are engaging with us is a big step in their lives.”


Carl Hutson is Lead Worker for both EASE and FSS. He said it’s crucial that peer mentoring programmes such as these are in place to coexist with more traditional forms of support, especially in the area of mental health where a certain kind of trust has to be established. 


“People with mental health issues not only have to deal with the natural barriers of finding work, they also struggle with themselves. For example, they might be concerned they won’t be considered for jobs because of their problems. We’re not a traditional employment agency; we have a more patient approach. It’s good to be able to feel you can speak to someone about what is going on in your head, as well as get the practical help you need. That’s what these schemes are about.”


The additional advantage that peer mentoring schemes have is that not only do the clients benefit from the support, the peer mentors themselves have the opportunity to use the experience to develop their skills and progress their own career paths. It can be a useful insight into working in the homeless or charity sector, or as a means of gaining or practicing specific skills such as communication skills and working with others. Peer mentors from these two schemes have been known to find other voluntary positions within Thames Reach, or even paid employment. According to Michael Heggarty, senior practitioner at Thames Reach who oversees EASE and FSS, it is a win-win situation.


“Clients get the all the support they need to move forward, and at the same time, the mentors also learn. It is a two-way process.”


Desmond is now on the EASE scheme, again working with Assad.  


“We’re doing my CV now,” he says. “What I had before was long-winded and full of spelling mistakes. We’re going to continue refining it.”


His voice is upbeat, optimistic. When asked if he would still consider driver-delivery jobs, he says: “Yeah I’ll give it a go. You got sat nav now which makes it a lot easier.”