Changing the Narrative: An Interview with Changes Bristol

Mental health affects everyone. Each year, 1 in 4 people experience a form of mental distress in England. At Sticker it, we want to help generate awareness and visibility for the amazing charities that create safe spaces for people living with a form of mental distress.

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we at Sticker it are thrilled to be teaming up with Changes Bristol, a Bristol-based, peer-led charity established in 2003. Changes Bristol is community-led, supporting those currently experiencing any form of mental health issues and helps them to reach mental well-being.

The charity is largely volunteer-based and receives minimal funding from Bristol City Council. At Sticker it, we are amazed by the work they do and will:

  • Donate £1 for every order placed with us during Mental Health Awareness Week, 10th 16th May to Changes Bristol
  • Include mental health biodegradable paper labels with every order

In the lead-up to this, we got to meet Alex Henden, Changes Bristol’s Development and Events Manager, who took the time to chat with us about the charity’s mission, the challenges faced during COVID-19 and all things mental health.

One of Changes Bristol’s core functions is to offer a space for others with real world experiences of poor mental health to support one another. This would include the staff and volunteers, as well as members. Alex has suffered from poor mental health in the past herself: “We believe that lived experience is so important when it comes to understanding what people are going through. It allows our staff and volunteers to step into our members’ shoes as they may have some understanding of a similar situation from their own life.”

“We want to be as accessible as possible”

“This shared experience enables us to create a community of trust. Many of our members not only find support here but make friends with others outside of the meetings.” Trust is at the very foundation of Changes Bristol’s peer support model. The weekly support sessions are run by trained facilitators who ensure that every meeting is a judgement-free, safe space. “Equality and inclusivity are crucial,” Alex says. “To ensure everyone feels comfortable enough to share their experience and find support, we also offer group sessions aimed at specific communities like men’s and women’s groups, an LGBTQ+ group and a group for Women of Colour.”

Men in a support group sitting and talking to each other

There is no need for a referral or a diagnosis to participate in a group session. “We want to be as open as possible for everyone, no matter what they are going through,” Alex stresses. “It can be daunting to find a therapist when you are experiencing mental distress. You can come to a group meeting if you do not have a diagnosis, do not agree with your diagnosis or just need someone to talk to. We have no waiting lists, no cost and no limits to how many or how little sessions you have to attend.”

This non-hierarchical and inclusive approach works to destigmatise mental illness and distress in society. Compared to 10 years ago, the discourse surrounding mental health has certainly become a lot more open and less of a taboo. This is partly due to charities like Changes Bristol which mediate the public perception of mental health. “But there is still a long way to go. Mental health as a discussion subject is still a taboo in the workplace, for example.”

To change this, Changes Bristol offers bespoke training for mental health awareness at the workplace. “This includes training for managerial positions and centres mostly around active listening, peer support and mental health first aid.” Especially as COVID restrictions are starting to lift and we are adapting to full-time work again, maintaining a healthy balance between work and life is essential: “Returning to the workplace and social life in general can be challenging: Some people might experience social anxiety or can struggle to engage in social interactions. That is absolutely okay, it can take just as long to adapt to going back to normal than it was to adapt to the restrictions”.

The need for support has tripled since COVID 19

Negative feelings and social isolation are often at the core of mental distress and the Coronavirus pandemic certainly amplified these emotions. The restrictions not only presented a challenge to running the charity’s support network but increased the demand for their services significantly. “Three times as many people have reached out to us since March 2020,” Alex states.

“We had to move from in-person group meetings to online support groups which brought a new set of challenges: not all of our members have internet access or feel comfortable speaking during a video call. We had to find a form of service that suits everyone, especially for our most vulnerable members.” To fill this gap, Changes Bristol established a Befriending Service, a weekly phone call with a trained volunteer, offering every member the possibility to share their experience in a confidential, private space. “This has now become one of our most used tools and by the end of this year we will be supporting over 120 people.”

Mental Health Awareness Week is a busy time for Alex and her team and the chance to expose people who are not living with mental distress to these issues and to highlight why charities like Changes Bristol deserve much more attention. “People living and working with mental health distress are surrounded by it every day. Mental Health Awareness Week is a great way to shed light on the reality of living with mental health issues and keep this conversation going.”

People talking with one another in a support group

5 Ways of Wellbeing

At the end of our interview, Alex shared the 5 Ways of Wellbeing with us – a great way to check in with yourself and make sure you are taking the time to prioritise your mental health.

  1. Connection: Stay connected to your surroundings, to yourself and the people around you. Pick up the phone, meet for a walk in the park, have a cuddle with your pet or enjoy that cup of coffee you made for yourself.
  2. Be active: That does not necessarily mean go for a run. Instead, get some fresh air and just be outside, moving your body in any way that you can and feels good.
  3. Keep learning: This is all about new things and experiences. Mastering a new skill or simply learning something new about your work colleague can boost your self-esteem.
  4. Give to others: Helping your friends, your family or in your community will not only make a great difference to their life, but it will improve your own mental wellbeing.
  5. Stay present: Be aware of your surroundings and appreciate the little things. Even your daily commute can have its beautiful corners, we just have to discover them!

We would like to thank Alex for taking the time to talk to us and share the amazing work she is doing with Changes Bristol. 

If you are looking for someone to speak to or find yourself in a situation of mental distress, you can find all their support groups right here.

Are you thrilled by the work Changes Bristol do and want to support them?

You can apply to volunteer or donate.

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