“We work with around 100 people, but that’s peanuts given there are about 1.5m carers in Lancashire,” she says. “But that support is nevertheless crucial."
Founded in 2009, Rethink is an independent and self-funded peer support group run under the aegis of Rethink Mental Illness. Independent of social services and the NHS, it offers information and support both in person and online for the carers of those living with mental health illness.
Run by and for carers - the best support is innately empathetic - the group offers people works to ensure people can provide the best care possible for the estimated 37,000 people with a diagnosis of severe mental illness in Lancashire.
“Caring for people with mental illness can be difficult and, if they don’t have insight into their own illness, it can cause issues,” says Valerie, who’s been involved since 2009. “Someone once said to me that the difference between caring for someone with a physical illness and someone with a mental illness is that the second group quite often isn’t grateful for your help.
“Rethink offers everything from practical help - we’ve even helped people move house - to moral and emotional support, help with signposting relevant services, and assistance with accessing benefits,” she adds. “I’ve had quite a few people saying they don’t know where they’d be without Rethink.
“There’s a stigma around mental illness, but families live with it and need support,” Valerie continues. “Often, as soon as people realise they’re not alone, the floodgates open. And that chance to offload is crucial because I’ve often found that carers are disregarded by the statutory mental health services.”
One of the group’s volunteers, Trish, came across Rethink around eight years ago after a family member of hers was diagnosed with mental health problems and credits the group with making a big impact on her life.
“You get such a lot of support from people and you get so much out of hearing about other people’s experiences,” Trish says. “It makes you realise that you’re not the only one: in the group, we’re all in the same boat. I get a lot of pride from being involved in Rethink, especially at a time like Covid, which has been tough for people.
“But the pandemic has only reaffirmed the importance of the group, in my mind,” she adds. “Valerie is an absolute tower of strength and she puts so much work in it’s untrue. It wouldn’t exist without her and she’s there for everybody.”
Having forged a strong relationships with local service managers such as the NHS, local councils, and Lancashire County Council so as to resolve issues at as early a stage as possible, Rethink also offers support with financial issues and is involved with a couple of carers’ services in Blackburn with Darwen and East Lancashire as their mental health arms.
But, during the pandemic, their network of support was pushed to the limit.
Forced to hold meetings online, Rethink found the format to be lacking given the age profile of their service-users but, thankfully, have recently been able to return to in-person meetings in Accrington and Chorley.
“The toll that caring for someone with mental illness takes can be huge and, of course, it’s been exacerbated in lockdown,” explains Valerie. “People didn’t just stop getting ill and anxiety is a huge component of mental illness, which Covid has just added to. Services have done what they can, but they’ve been stretched and it’s that face-to-face contact which helps people.
“You see a massive difference in people when they can actually come to meetings because they go from being completely lost to realising there are other people who understand,” she adds. “Seeing that brings me an awful lot of fulfilment.”
For more information, head to www.rethink.org/help-in-your-area/support-groups/rethink-carers-lancashire/ or email [email protected]