St Giles is a London-based charity that helps people create a better future for themselves, and they’ve been an active part of our Foundation network for over five years. The charity works with people to overcome poverty, exploitation, abuse, addiction, mental health problems, crime or a combination of these issues.
And a significant number of its peer advisors are people who have overcome their own struggles – often through St Giles’ own programmes. The peer advisors then use their ‘lived experience’ to help others in similar positions. However, the peer advisors were having trouble addressing the huge upswing in their clients’ mental health needs when the pandemic hit. In fact, 92% said that the number of clients that had mental health needs had increased since COVID. As one peer advisor put it: “As the [mental health] problems get bigger and louder, the clients find it harder to open up and ask for help – with disastrous results.”
SEEING THE NEED
St Giles saw it as an opportunity to give peer advisors mental health first aid training. So the charity applied for £5,000 in funding from the City & Guilds Foundation, which we matched with funding from The Educators, to deliver this essential training to 50 peer advisors.
The charity received the funding and launched a two-day training course in May 2021, said Carol Thomson, Quality and Assessment Manager at St Giles. “We were able to develop training to help our peer advisors recognise and address those crucial mental health needs,” Thomson said. “It’s not training them to be therapists; it’s training them to be first aiders so they can keep themselves and clients safe, and know how to respond appropriately.”
Instead of being therapists, it’s about recognising the mental health needs of their clients and signposting them to existing services so that they can get the right help.
BUILDING CONFIDENCE AND IMPROVING RELATIONSHIPS
St Giles has delivered the training for just over year, and it’s been a great success. So far, the charity has delivered seven courses to 61 peer advisors. When talking to Carol she said: “It’s been fantastic to see the increased confidence in peers to be able to work with clients around their mental health and to recognise potential mental health needs.”
“The training has helped them start those conversations, which can be really difficult to have, and know what is and isn’t helpful to say.”
One of the techniques they learn on the course is “ALGEE”, which stands for:
A – Approach, assess for risk of suicide or harm.
L – Listen non-judgmentally.
G – Give reassurance and information.
E – Encourage appropriate professional help.
E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
And as one attendee put it: “I just wanted to let you know that I used “ALGEE” yesterday with a client in serious crisis and it gave me so much more confidence to deal with the situation. I can see just how valuable this is going to be to me in my personal and professional life.”
That feedback demonstrates how essential this training is to help peer advisors build those relationships and trust with vulnerable clients.
Both the Foundation and St Giles had confidence in knowing that the funding and course would deliver support for their clients, but we also know that there have been some unexpected benefits for the peer advisors themselves. “Peer advisors are using the skills they learned in their training to help themselves as well,” Carol said. “The techniques that they have learned to support people who are having a bit of a mental health crisis can actually be equally helpful in their own day to day lives as well, which has been absolutely fantastic.”
In fact, the training has been so successful that St Giles was flooded with requests from people across the organisation and external partners who wanted to attend.
“That huge swell of interest was a real testament to me about how needed this course is across the board,” Carol said. “We’re able to deliver it to a mix of people – including some who are paying for the course – which enhances the environment and makes the training more sustainable for years to come.”
CREATING A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Mental health first aid training is a big part of helping peer advisors tackle challenges. But St Giles recognises its peers need a whole host of skills to be successful. That’s why the charity is also using funding from us to help peer advisors gain essential digital skills too.
“Our peer advisors often need to learn really practical things, like how to send an email,” Carol said in a recent article for FE News. “If you’ve been in prison for the last 15 years, you probably don’t know how to use a smartphone. And since some of our peer advisors haven’t had much exposure to technology in prison, it can be really overwhelming for them when they are suddenly expected to know how to join a Zoom meeting.”
So St Giles is using funding to identify gaps in digital knowledge to prepare advisors for employment. Even covering very basic digital skills like sending emails and accepting calendar appointments. Carol explained: “There are so many skills that we take for granted because they’re so normalised – we teach foundational skills like what’s the appropriate language to use in a professional email. So basic, but absolutely essential.”
“We’ve found if someone has been out of the workforce for any reason, like prison or long-term illness, it’s very easy to get left behind. Very easy. So we assess for skills as well as access to technology. If you’re a single parent with a child, you might not necessarily have WiFi in your house. We’re identifying any barrier to digital access and tackling it.”
After all, it’s about giving people the opportunity to be competitive in the job market. When finishing the course individuals have earned a City & Guilds Level 3 Advice & Guidance – a professional level qualification – and that gives them such a confidence boost. It’s helping them to understand the expectations in the workforce, and giving individuals skills so that they can move into work confidently. They’re all now on a (close to) level playing field.
And judging from the feedback, it’s working.
“[The skills from this course are] going to help me to keep organised and make things no longer seem impossible. It was a bit of a mystery before.”
THINGS NO LONGER SEEM IMPOSSIBLE
St Giles is already delivering its mental health first aid and digital skills courses with great success. So it’s adding money management into the mix. The charity has just launched a new course that teaches peer advisors how to offer basic money management support to the clients they serve. It covers everything from creating a personal budget, identifying what money is coming in and out each week, and even understanding the difference between basic terms like ‘standing order’ and ‘direct debit.’
Carol explained the course: “It’s all about demystifying money, because lots of people get really quite scared about finances and things. Our new course is aimed at making people feel confident and comfortable with talking to clients about their financial situations. It’s all about highly practical ways to tackle what is quite a personal topic for people. The goal of this course is to help our peer advisors approach money management with sensitivity and practicality.”
Equally important is that the course helps peer advisors understand the limits of how they can help.
And while it’s early days, the feedback is already positive. People are finding that the training is taking away the fear of money, looking at is a practical vehicle and not a source of shame. It’s enabling people to become more in control of their finances, and ultimately their lives.
PREPARING TO THRIVE
Ultimately, mental health first aid, digital skills, and money advice are all about giving people the tools they need to thrive in life. And that includes both peer advisors and the clients they serve.
St Giles is finding it hugely rewarding to watch our peer advisors and clients grow in confidence as they gain these skills they never had the opportunity to learn, and yet the world expects them to have. Carol describes it as, “Nothing we’re teaching is earth shattering, and that’s the point. It’s all about giving people the space to learn at their own pace, with the right knowledge so they can change their futures.” We’re delighted to be supporting such impactful initiatives with St Giles, and look forward to seeing the continued impact.