Starting a Peer Support Group – Dennis Duerr

REALITIES: How it happened – and is happening

Realities is a group that supports people in their experience of their perception of Reality. The group has been running for a year now. The following is the Reality of how it all happened, as perceived by me, Dennis, facilitator of the group.

A couple of years ago John Tovey, who among many other things is a Consumer Advisor for CCDHB, suggested that we start a Hearing Voices group. I mulled the idea over for a time.

I had started going along to ‘Balance’, which is a Peer Support group that runs monthly in Johnsonville, Wellington. At this time I was going through a time of intense shyness, and figured that it would be good for me to have the company of like-minded people.

It was from my participation in that group that the idea of starting a Hearing Voices group turned into actual preparation.

Although the international Hearing Voices Network makes it very clear they not only support people with voices, but also other perceptual differences – and differences with reality, the majority of people with distress I have encountered (including myself), do not identify their main difficulty as being voices, but rather dealing with having a different take on Reality. So I had some resistance to the group being named ‘Hearing Voices’.

I was musing on this when a complete stranger came up to me and started talking about there being a value in people who understand Reality differently to most.

When there is serendipity like this in life, I always listen to it. So I thought I would call the group “Reality”, with the idea being that the group would be grounding people in Reality – that the members of the group would support one another to figure out what Reality is together.

I thanked the universe for this gift and talked to people about the idea.

People reckoned “Realities” would be a better title. This change meant the group’s focus was now to be about respecting individuals separate, subjective Realities.

As always with me when others challenge something I think is a great idea, it was difficult. I wasn’t so caught up in this that I didn’t realise that ‘Realities’ could be a wonderful go to place for people to celebrate and discuss the emotional and spiritual journey of their Realities.

Our first group meeting was a planning one, which was also a Pot Luck dinner. This took place on the evening of 18th May 2016. We rented out a room at the Newtown Community Centre. Community Centres are a great resource and generally have concession rates for not for profit groups.

We got 25 people from Peer Support circles together, people that John and I knew from Balance and the other initiatives we had been involved in, plus email networks. The people who attended came from Peer initiatives, NGO organisations and public health organisations.

It was a very successful meeting, and we used ideas from it in the development of Realities.

We didn’t want the group to fall on the first week of the month, as this would conflict with the Balance group, so decided Realities could be run twice a month, every second and fourth Wednesday. We stuck with the usage of Newtown Community Centre.

The scheduling of the second and fourth weeks caused a bit of confusion at first, but with explanation and time people got used to it.

We decided to affiliate the group with Amigos, a Wellington Peer Support group that runs a number of community groups. And there is also an affiliation with the Hearing Voices Network Aotearoa in Auckland.

There was, and is, a great synergy that Realities has with the Balance group, with participants coming from Balance to Realities and vice versa. We integrated lessons and procedures learnt from the long running Balance group into Realities.

There are around four people who turn up early to prepare the room for the Realities meeting. This task is taking down tables and arranging chairs and preparing the drinks and snacks, as well as this reversed at the end of the meeting.

Realities is funded by Koha, the advantage of which is that the group has freedom for its own development. A bank account has been created to store Realities funds.

In the early days of Realities, to stimulate conversation and break the ice, we had people give talks on a topic relating to Realities at the beginning of each group, then had discussion around it. This worked so well that we have used this formula for every one of the groups.

We have had talks on all manner of topics, examples being identity, music, spirituality, introversion/ extroversion and creativity.

The natural progression, mood and make up of the group means it doesn’t take a stance about things like medication, respecting peoples decision to take or not take it.

The group is for everyone. It is not restricted to people who identify as experiencing distress. Anyone who identifies as having a difference in Reality is welcome.

This has been a somewhat contentious issue – some attendees thought that it should be for people who had major differences in their reality, some thought all should be welcome. Most eventually agreed that it be for anyone who identifies as having, or having had, a difference in Reality. This leaves it open to the vast majority of people, including those who don’t identify as having experienced mental distress.

We were getting large numbers of people coming to the group in its first months – up to two dozen people. The attendance has settled down to a core group of a dozen, with new people popping their heads in frequently to see if the group is for them. We also have ‘occasional regulars’.

I liken the core group to the embers of a camp fire, ready to cook and stoke the new fire of the group.

The group is advertised via cellphone texts and Facebook.

I think it would be respectful now to mention those instrumental to the success of Realities. There is John, who suggested the idea in the first place and gives wise advice. There is Amigos Peer Support, and Steve from Amigos who sends out reminder texts. And there is Barbara who is a great support with the groups, helping out with practical things, and who is another who gives wise advice.

Recently a Realities committee has been formed to oversee the running and development of the group.

I myself have benefited greatly from my input into the creation of Realities. It has led to me being more positive and confident about myself, and through the both formal and informal discussions that go on in the group I have learned much wisdom and many strategies to use when my Reality becomes challenging.

The main thing I have learnt in the running of the group is adapting to the group’s needs and listening to other’s ideas. Even though I was sure that I had a good idea, taking it to others and inviting their input has made it great. I sit in the group when it is in the midst of animated discussion and think it is exactly the way it should be.

The group runs every second and fourth Wednesday of the month at 5.30pm, at the Newtown Community Centre, at the corner Rintoul and Colombo Streets in Newtown, Wellington.

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