Sonia Braham: Don't underestimate the value of lived experience

Service users often respond better to workers who have been through similar, difficult circumstances, argues the peer researcher

Sonia Braham
Sonia Braham

Growing up was not very pleasant for me. I have experienced abuse, addiction and homelessness for many, many years. I spent five years living in a park. I came into contact with many organisations during the most difficult times of my life and too often they were not good experiences. Sometimes I was treated badly by their staff.

A lot of the time people working in voluntary sector organisations who have not experienced these issues don’t understand how hard it is for a service user to seek help and change their lifestyle. That’s why having people with lived experience on the staff can be so valuable.

Sometimes just by being there and having come out the other side, they are able to inspire and motivate the service users they work with. After I got clean I saw people I used to know and they could not believe it was me. They told me it made them think "there’s still hope for me".

When I look back on my life at the time, I don’t think I had any feelings. The only things that kept me going were drugs and alcohol. I was totally broken deep inside and didn’t know where to go or what to do. I had no friends because nobody wanted to be around a mess. That’s how they saw me and that’s how I was.

There came a point at which I’d had enough. I just couldn’t live like that any more. I needed help, so I decided to get myself arrested for shoplifting – that’s how desperate I was. That was my first point of help, but it wasn’t straightforward. If I could have had contact with someone who had been in those situations before and got through it, that really could have helped me.

Eventually I got help from a really good aftercare service, in particular from one member of staff, and started volunteering with it. I studied and passed all my exams. That was my turning point: I knew then that I could be someone, and I had this strong urge to support others who were going through what I had been through.

Recently, I have been working on the Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage, run by AVA (Against Violence and Abuse) and Agenda, the Alliance for Women and Girls at Risk.

I was a peer researcher, interviewing women who had experienced abuse and faced other issues, such as homelessness and substance use. I found that the women I interviewed opened up and felt more relaxed talking about their own life experiences because they knew I had been through it too. They also saw that there was hope for them when they saw how I had turned my life around.

I don’t think that everyone who works in the voluntary sector needs to have had the same experiences as me, but I do feel that staff without such experiences need better training so that they understand what the people they work with are going through. There can be so much going on in their lives, so many pressures, and this needs to be recognised.

This is also what the women we interviewed told us. They wanted staff to have training in the impact of abuse, and trauma particularly. They also felt that empathy was really important in building a trusting relationship between women and service providers.

Abuse can lead to all kinds of other life-threatening issues: mental illnesses, poverty, drug addiction and homelessness. If we are to support women who are facing those challenges, organisations need to work together and staff need to have a better understanding of what is at the root of behaviours. Having people with lived experience involved could make all the difference.

Sonia Braham is a peer researcher at the Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage. The Hand in Hand report is released today.

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