I used to volunteer with a group for men recovering from mental illness, which was organised by a local mental health care organisation.

I used to volunteer with a group for men recovering from mental illness, which was organised by a local mental health care organisation. We would meet every Wednesday at lunchtime and usually around six or seven men participated along with a facilitator. The facilitator would suggest some ways to make best use of the time, including games to help with building memory, topics for discussion and ways in which people could interact with each other in a positive way. The group was designed to be a safe and confidential place in which members could feel free to speak their minds and share personal information and experiences.

I noticed a couple of aspects of the group that taught me a lot about mental health and made me want to do more work in this field. The first was that all conversations tended to lead to one subject; work. We all defined ourselves through our occupations and felt pride in the kinds of work we were able to do and how many hours a week we were working. Progress was celebrated in a quiet way: for one man to express happiness that he was now doing three four-hour shifts a week inevitably left others feeling unhappy that they could not yet return to work. I quickly became used to the subject of work coming up during the first few exchanges and remaining a key topic throughout the meeting.

The second aspect of the group that woke me up to the realities of mental illness was the obvious isolation that everyone was experiencing. It wasn’t that they were without friends because most people associated with the organisation were visiting the drop-in centre most days and meeting others in a similar situation. What I noticed was a more deep-seated separation from the world outside mental health care, as if somehow the men in the group were cast adrift from the rest of the community because people didn’t really know how to talk to them anymore.

The value of the weekly conversations was undoubtable. They enabled the men to talk about issues they faced and helped recover skills and abilities they had lost or which were dormant, including having a sociable conversation with a group of other people. One man talked about improving his arithmetic skills and getting back to playing cricket again.

At the same time, I wondered what the rest of the week was like for participants. I went back to my office and a busy work environment, while they carried on with the process of recovery, often a solitary journey.

The group taught me about important factors that aid recovery and management of mental health issues. A greater number of self-help groups with experienced facilitators are a way of the mental health system embracing people recovering from illness and keeping in touch with them. We also need people in the wider community to be much more aware of mental health and to be willing to help those affected to overcome their isolation. Understanding the central role work has in our lives, and helping those who want to work, helps them regain a sense of self-worth.

The weekly sessions in which I participated were similar to the groups that BasicNeeds offer as part of its global model for recovery. BasicNeeds’ work in low and middle income countries involves encouraging participants to be a part of a self-help group, as it is through these groups that members get social and economic support.

I decided to join the self-help group in my area so as to join forces with people, lend a hand in farm production and raise awareness about mental health in my community. The group has changed the perception of people in the community regarding mental disorders and have shown the community that they are capable of improving lives…

– BasicNeeds self-help group participant.

The groups offer ongoing understanding and support for the conditions participants are living with, they build confidence to help them advocate for a better understanding of mental illness with their community and they help them to prepare for employment. Within these groups, people are listened to and are able to express themselves. It is a step towards individuals developing ways and means to manage their mental health as well as to advocate for their needs.