Safe, Inclusive, Stigma-Free Communities – The Peer Tree

The Peer Tree, an initiative of Kites Trust, is a youth peer support service that seeks to provide safe and inclusive spaces for young people/taiohi aged 18-24 years who are experiencing, or have experienced, mental illness.

Since its inception in July 2016, The Peer Tree has created a series of social groups that have attracted numerous young people who are all navigating their mental wellbeing. These groups have provided taiohi with places of community and creativity where they can belong and contribute, without fear of the stigma and discrimination that is often associated with mental illness. In turn, this supports them to further progress their recovery.

Furthermore, these groups are facilitated by young adults who have themselves experienced mental distress but are far enough along in their own recovery to effectively support their peers. In this way, The Peer Tree aims to empower young adults who are experiencing mental distress to become effective and supportive leaders. The initiative has seen some really positive outcomes come from its important mahi.

The biggest win has been seeing the growth of each member of The Peer Tree community. The importance of the manaakitanga our Peer Support leaders provide in fostering environments which promote being yourself, and a “come as you are” attitude, is immense. Their presence at our social groups mean those who attend receive the support they need and are encouraged to pass this on within and outside of social groups.

This whanaungatanga has led to a spike in the growth of The Peer Tree community, as well as people that have expressed interest in volunteering. Some of the most positive outcomes this year are the ideas each Peer Tree staff member and Peer Support Leader have come up with and run with. An example of this is our Rainbow Groups coordinator starting a Rainbow group from the ground up, for which attendance has grown steadily since its inception in the middle of this year,” says Hamish Thornton, Coordinator of The Peer Tree.

The Peer Tree was born out of a forum held by Early Intervention Service in 2014 which found that for young adult service users, the biggest requirement for mental health recovery was more peer support in the community. For Kites Trust, a peer-led mental health organisation specialising in innovative and achievable ideas, The Peer Tree made perfect sense. Like all things worth pursuing, it hasn’t been without its challenges.

One of the biggest challenges has been getting the word out about The Peer Tree, and specifically the positive impact it is making in the lives of young adults in Wellington. Another is ensuring The Peer Tree community continues to provide meaningful support to one another, while building the infrastructure to support training of volunteers and the growth of the community and its social groups. In essence, ensuring the quality of support The Peer Tree provides is valued over quantity of people reached,” he says.

With this in mind, The Peer Tree has some big plans for the future.

Te Whare O Matairangi [Mental Health Recovery Unit] moving back to Newtown [in Wellington] has meant we are starting up our Newtown Group at Peoples Coffee. The structure of The Peer Tree is evolving to include social group coordinators for the Hutt Valley, the Rainbow community, and Porirua/Kāpiti. Moving into 2020, the next steps are to grow our volunteer base to allow us to start up social groups in Lower Hutt, Rainbow groups on the Kelburn Victoria University campus and elsewhere in the wider Wellington region. We also want to start up monthly Sunday Funday activity groups again, which in the past have included activities such as photography, pottery making, movie nights, and walks through the botanical gardens,” he says.

The importance of peer support and connecting with people who have similar lived experience is priceless. Hamish sums it up perfectly:

Viewing our own lived experience as a strength and knowing we have developed a diverse toolbox of coping mechanisms and strategies for ourselves, some of which work for us and some of which don’t, is so important. The key thing is to pass these on to others as things for them to try, and to receive with grace those that are passed on to us. We are all responsible for our own journey, but we don’t have to travel the entire journey alone. We are stronger when we build each other up and meet each other where we are at, much like The Peer Tree encourages and promotes in their social groups.”

The Peer Tree is providing the young people of the Wellington region with something pretty special: a way to connect in a safe, inclusive environment that’s free from judgement and stigma.

We are very thankful for the support the JR McKenzie Trust provides, allowing The Peer Tree to continue encouraging young adults to support each other on their journeys,” says Hamish.