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Peer support and mental health with Loughborough University’s Mental Health researcher Lorna Tweed


Posted on 30 May 19


Dr Dane Vishnubala: Lorna, thank you for joining us. Obviously we met at Elevate when we did a mental health session together. It is fantastic to have someone of your calibre join us. In this blog, it'd be great to chat more about mental health and your research.

Lorna Tweed: Hello! My name's Lorna Tweed and I am a final year PhD student at Loughborough University. I have about two months left until final submission, so that is extremely exciting! My career started with an undergraduate degree at the University of Central Lancashire up in Preston, where I was awarded a First Class in Sport Psychology. This fuelled my decision to continue on and do my MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, before taking some time out of academia and I just worked at a children’s farm park for a short while. It was on a rainy Saturday morning at about 7am when I was litter picking in the car park that I decided I fancied more studies! An incredible studentship came up with the wonderful Dr Florence Kinnafick which is based in Exercise Psychology. I decided to apply, I received an interview, and I secured the PhD… and here I am three years later approaching the finish line. Yippee!

Dr Dane Vishnubala: Mental health is an important topic that is getting a lot of media attention. Why is this in your opinion?

Lorna Tweed: The increasing prevalence of mental health problems is a growing concern, with 1 in 4 in the UK experiencing mental health problems each year, and 1 in 6 having a clinical diagnosis, more commonly anxiety and depression. This means that more and more people are becoming affected by mental illness, either personally or through those close to them. I think that mental health is gaining more media attention because there has been a positive movement towards encouraging individuals to speak out about their daily struggles. A lot of famous faces have also spoken out about issues which are often undercover, and impossible to spot from afar, particularly as people can so easily put on a smile which hides a world of sadness, fear, helplessness and feelings of no self-worth. Talking about our problems allows others to become more aware of the invisible struggles that many of us face, so don’t be ashamed or hide away I say.

Dr Dane Vishnubala: So tell me about your doctoral research at Loughborough University.

Lorna Tweed: So the focus of my PhD research is looking at the role of peer support within a community-based, physical activity programme for individuals with poor mental health and mental illness. I worked as a researcher on a National programme with Mind (the UK mental health charity who fund my PhD) which aimed to promote physical activity engagement, increase motivation and reduce barriers to physical activity experienced by mental health service users. The programme was called Get Set to Go and raised awareness of how being physically active can support mental health (with over 83,000 people, and supported by over 3,500 people) to become active in their local communities. GStG is the largest programme in the world that used a peer support model, with community physical activity sessions being led by individuals with lived experience of mental health issues. Peer support became the focus of my PhD thesis, as I wanted to look at the impact of peer support within these physical activity sessions both for the participants receiving the support and for the peer volunteers who were delivering the support. I also considered differences between face-to-face peer support and online peer support through an online community platform.

Dr Dane Vishnubala: So why is peer support so important?

Lorna Tweed: Peer support is important because when people have been through certain situations themselves and have that lived experience, they have greater understanding and the ability to support and empathise with others who are in similar situations. My research found that the inclusion of peer support helped to develop a physical activity environment which was safe from stigma and discrimination, non-judgemental and allowed participants to be themselves. Often individuals with mental illness feel that when exercising in mainstream facilities, they won’t fit in, instructors won’t understand their changes in mood or behaviour from one session to the next, and therefore barriers stack up causing them to deter away from exercise. However when they are with similar, like-minded others, they feel much more comfortable to engage in physical activity which has a positive effect on their mental health as a result. A key finding when interviewing peer volunteers was the reciprocal nature of the peer support. By this, I mean that volunteers got so much out of providing peer support to others that this drove their desire to continue volunteering peer support to service users. Developing strong connections with each other can then trickle outside of physical activities and into everyday life. 

Dr Dane Vishnubala: What advice would you give exercise professionals around supporting their clients with mental health issues?

Lorna Tweed: I would suggest that PTs/fitness professionals ensure that the complex needs of their clients is at the centre of the plan. You definitely can’t assume that a plan for one individual with depression is going to suit a different individual who also has depression for example. I would say that it is important to allow the client to speak and allow them to develop their plan so that they feel they are in control of what is ahead of them, keeping goals short term, realistic but also flexible to take into account symptoms of medication, changes in mood, behaviour, etc. Lastly, I would suggest introducing clients to other clients, who they might like to connect with and exercise with further down the line. Of course, this may not be for everyone but again the role of peer support can help facilitate engagement and motivation towards physical activity.

Dr Dane Vishnubala: What are the opportunities to improve the care of those with mental health issues?

Lorna Tweed: People need to continue raising awareness of mental health issues and encouraging discussions around how they’re feeling in order to detect when people may need extra support (whether that be through mental health services, peer support, or close friends and family). It is important to treat everyone equally, and not isolate those with mental health issues. As a society, we still need to work on breaking down the stigma and discrimination by creating an inclusive community which is safe for people to open up within. In particular, utilising lived experience to help support others on a similar journey to mental health recovery. If everyone showed that little bit more empathy and encouragement to keep going, that would help move us in the right direction. “It is okay not to be okay.”

Dr Dane Vishnubala: Thanks for your time Lorna. You can follow Lorna on Twitter and keep updated on her research at @LornMarie91. If you are interested in learning more about Active IQ’s fantastic Level 2 Award in Mental Health Awareness qualification then read more about it here.

Further reading

Dr Dane Vishnubala | Active IQ Chief Medical Advisor