Peer Support Groups aren’t every Woman’s cup of Tea
It’s easy to represent a rose-tinted hue when it comes to running a peer support group for women who experience multiple and complex disadvantage, but the group setting does not suit all women and it can be difficult to organise and to maintain. We do present the positive aspects of a women’s community group in much of our social media, as most of it is. But in the interests of honesty, I write today about some of the issues we encounter in our year to year experience.
Running and maintaining a women’s group is not easy
Throughout the 7 years Cohort 4 have been in operation we have formed a community of women with both incredible personal strengths and also with some individual challenges. We have created a space to thrive and to heal in a non-judgemental, peer led safe space. However, for a very small number of women, we have not managed to incorporate them into our space. Each time this happens it feels like a failure. We come together regularly as a group, as a team and as a director group to ask what we can do more to enhance the inclusion of more women? We reflect on what we need to do to continue to offer a safe and supportive space for the majority.
Areas of risk that we cannot manage
Sometimes women attend Cohort 4 where their own risk of causing harm is too high to safely attend group sessions with other women. Occasionally, their needs for specialist support is too high for a small community led peer group. At this point, we must refer women on for specialist support and assist them away from the group.
Although we have 1:1 sessions with new group members before inviting them into the group, sometimes it is only after a period of time where we see that our environment is unhelpful or we find that the risks connected to individual women are too high. Where this occurs women either decide to leave or we ask them to leave as a necessary safety consideration. This can then cause disappointment or even provoke anger in some women hoping to join the group or to take advantage of the support available. Sometimes this anger is difficult to experience. However, we are clear as an organisation our safeguarding responsibilities and risk management actions. We are clear about what we are and what we can do, and what we cannot. Sometimes that upsets individual women that we cannot meet their needs or circumstances.
Some women come to Cohort 4 and their communication can be critical of other women, and we have to take care that the safe and supportive nature of the group is maintained. Our group members devised their own Group Agreement to ensure group safety. Non-judgement and kindness are two of the basic tenets of the group’s decision making about having a safe space to meet.
Thankfully rare, we do have women who cannot maintain kindness and honest communication and it is then a significant challenge to carefully manage this to ensure that the whole organisation and group feels safe.
Expectations we cannot meet
We have occasionally encountered women who have had expectations that we cannot meet. We have had those who have found fault with Cohort 4 and who have then sought to damage the organisation by defamation and personal criticism. This is hard, especially when the comments are sent via third parties, to our funders or to women within the group via their own private social media for example. We have had women who have chosen to withdraw from the group, then have lashed out with angry criticism and who have sought to damage the whole organisation, spoiling it for the remaining group members. These are such selfish acts as they potentially cause damage to the women attending the group. After such incidents, we are left to reflect on those women and on their behaviour, but also to consider what we might have done better and how we can improve in the future, whilst keeping all women group members and the team safe and happy. We aspire to be a reflective organisation.
For some women, their expectations and demands can be more than we can ever hope to meet, and this again is always a sadness irrespective of how clear we are from the outset.
So, in honesty, running a women’s organisation is not without challenge and as well as the joy, it can cause stress and disappointment. A community, peer led organisation is not easy to sustain. However, the vast majority of women connected with Cohort 4: group members, volunteers, team members and directors are women with integrity, with an overwhelming kindness and honesty towards each other, and this growing group of women make the difficulties and the failures easier to manage as the years pass. We will keep trying to be better, to be more inclusive, but to do so safely. We try to be a cup of tea that as many women as possible can enjoy in our area.