“We are not outsiders, we are one of your own”: peer support groups in detention
On 21 November, the Freed Voices group invited Akiko Hart, Hearing Voices project manager at Mind in Camden, to their November monthly meeting. Akiko and Freed Voices members Mishka and Red have contributed some thoughts about this meeting.
I am Akiko Hart. I work as the Hearing Voices Project Manager at Mind in Camden, where I help set up and facilitate Hearing Voices peer support groups in the community, prison, secure units, detention centres, and children and adolescent services. I am also the Chair of ISPS UK and sit on the Hearing Voices Network England Committee.
I was recently invited to a Freed Voices meeting to talk about Mind in Camden’s work with people who hear voices in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs). We have been funded to develop peer support groups and deliver workshops in IRCs, for people who hear, see and sense things others don’t, or who experience extreme states or distress. Part of what we do is train staff to better support people with these experiences.
Our approach is different to more mainstream mental health ones, in that we believe these experiences are meaningful and can be understood in many different ways; not necessarily as symptoms of an illness, but as a response to difficult life events, trauma, or adversity, or as spiritual transformation, or neurodiversity – and many more explanations in between and beyond these. Peer support groups can be a way of bearing witness, connecting with one another, and holding space for people to be able to make sense of their experiences in the best way for them. They can be transformative on both a personal and collective level.
We have set up two Hearing Voices groups at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, have trained staff and volunteers from Heathrow, Gatwick and Campsfield House, and will be delivering workshops at Yarl’s Wood.
On a personal level, I’m struck by the disconnect between the way in which some policy makers and practitioners talk about mental health in IRCs, and the reality. Given the deep uncertainty people in detention have to hold, the anger, the sense of helplessness, the environmental conditions which are closer to a prison even though the regimes may be different, the separation from loved ones, the stress, the boredom, and what so many experience as dehumanising conditions – it seems obvious to me that pretty much everyone in an IRC will experience distress. Therefore, talking about tackling mental ill-health in terms of interventions such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), or even offering peer support groups can feel inadequate.
The main changes that would improve mental health in detention are in fact structural. This echoes wider mental health conversations around not just thinking about mental health as a problem within the individual: we need to take account of social and economic factors such as poverty, inequality and discrimination.
My meeting with Freed Voices was hugely impactful. What hit me straightway were the parallels between their work as experts-by-experience (“not case studies”) advocating for changes in detention, and the work of survivors and service users who advocate for change in mental health. Having a seat at the table is not enough: it is about centring the voices of those at the heart of the system. I imagine there might be similar challenges around having one’s experiences and views side-lined, tokenised or co-opted.
Freed Voices is an advocacy and campaigns group with an innate peer support group element, and what I’d like to do next year, in the first instance, is offer them a free training around Hearing Voice peer support group facilitation. It might be that some of them go on to facilitate a Hearing Voices group in an IRC or the community, but I think the main outcome will be learning from each other and deepening our understanding of how peer support can be mobilised for both personal support and political action. One member asked me: is what you are doing in IRCs just a sticking plaster? I don’t know, I said. I hope not, but it might be. But I need to keep on asking myself that question.
Freed Voices members Mishka and Red also shared their thoughts. Freed Voices is a group of experts-by-experience committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK and calling for radical detention reform. They tweet at @FreedVoices
Freed Voices group is really thankful to Akiko for coming to our November 21 monthly session and sharing more information about the Hearing Voices projects. We were impressed by her awareness around the issue of mental health in immigration detention centres. We found this meeting very interesting and the Hearing Voices approach seems very compelling to us.
One of the main purposes of Freed Voices group is raising awareness around immigration detention in the UK, and we are seeing many important achievements in relation to our goals. However, immigration detention centres are still there, and yearly, roughly 28000 people have to go through the everyday psychological stresses and trauma of immigration detention. This is why we believe that projects like Hearing Voices have a huge potential in helping people facing this situation.
Our group is looking forward to undergoing free training around Hearing Voices support group facilitation and we are thankful for this opportunity. Some of our members are also looking forward to facilitating Hearing Voices groups in the community and also in detention centres as well, such as Harmondsworth or Colnbrook. Being involved in a project like Hearing Voices could be a challenging experience for some of our members, as it may involve returning to a place that would make us recall our terrible memories of detention. Detention is a place where an important part of our lives were stolen.
However, the fact that we have already been in detention and our will to participate in this project could provide an important opportunity to reach more people incarcerated in detention centres, and to enable them to handle and overcome the psychological pressure that they are facing everyday.
Freed Voices members have first hand experience of detention, which increases our credibility. As Red said,
“When we go to visit people incarcerated in detention centres as a part of Hearing Voices group facilitation, we can tell them that we have been where you are now; we are not outsiders, we are one of your own; we are here to listen and we’ll do all we can to help, even if all the help that we can give is to share your pain, so you no longer feel isolated, so you no longer feel hopeless and on your own; we are here to show you that no matter how difficult or impossible as it may seem, it is always possible to heal.”
This is the kind of contribution Freed Voices can provide to the project to make it more effective.
It is also important to highlight that the damage and trauma of detention can stay even after someone is released and this is carried back to their families and their communities as well. This is why it is important to have projects like Hearing Voices for people even after they are released from detention. Freed Voices members are very keen to be involved in any such projects as well. Mishka said,
“We are optimistic about this opportunity and look forward to being involved in this project. Like Akiko, we at Freed Voices also believe that one of the main outcomes of this future collaboration between Freed Voices and Hearing Voices will be about learning from each other and intensifying our understanding of how peer support can be mobilised for both personal support and political action.”