Recently, I had my last day as a Mental Health Support Worker in a supported living accommodation. It was my first job out of university and it gave me the chance to help people – that was my only criteria for a job role. I wanted to write a bit about what I have learnt through this job over the past 2 years.
First off, I should explain what I actually did. Essentially I was working in a place with self contained flats that was staffed 24 hours a day. The residents all had a diagnosis of a mental illness. Some also had learning disabilities and issues with substance misuse. The staff are there to keep people safe and support people to become more independent. The people being supported are at the centre of everything we do. Nothing is done without their consent or permission. Our job was to facilitate their wants and needs, not put ours on them. So what did I learn?
Everyone has different wants and needs
This sounds obvious but it is something that people struggle with. I worked with a bunch of incredible, unique people. In the past, mental health systems have been focused on getting people to behave a certain way, a way that is seen as ‘socially acceptable.’ This takes away an element of choice. In my role, I quickly realised that people have, for example, different standards of living. This is okay. While one person may keep their home immaculate, who are we to say that everyone should. If it is not a hazard to health then people should be allowed to live in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Similarly, there is a lot of focus in mental health around getting people to have routines and take part in activities. However, this does not work for everyone. Not everyone wants to live like this, some people can be content with a life of watching television and going for walks round the park. We should never judge someone for how they choose to live their life if it is not harming them or anybody else.
The Mental Health crisis you keep hearing about is real
I had experienced first hand the waiting times, bad counsellors and therapists, poor treatment. But, it is different when you see it happening to others. There are care managers completely overstretched with mountains of paperwork to fill out and no time to see the people behind the paperwork. Medication is given to people and then they are left on their own without even being offered any alternatives. Something needs to change because there are human beings suffering who cannot get help and that is not acceptable. The fact that mental health services drug people up and then walk away actually makes me sick.
People are incredibly resilient
Hearing stories about people’s history and what they live with every day amazed me constantly. It gave me hope for myself and those I care about. Trauma, hospital admissions, hearing 20 voices constantly every day, being heavily medicated – there are people out there with these experiences who still get out of bed every day and keep going. The admiration I felt for those I was supporting was astounding and the fact that they could not see their success made my heart hurt. I also discovered that people are capable of so much more than they realise and so much more than society believes they are.
Never underestimate the power of listening
Many people with mental health needs have a lot of experience with not being heard, with not being listened to. Not everyone feels able to listen to people talking about their trauma or delusions. But thankfully, there are people who will listen and it is so important to let someone know that they are being heard and that they matter. Psychiatrists tend to give patients an hour of time every six months. Care coordinators and social workers can provide half an hour once a month, sometimes less. Having a safe space to talk to someone who will listen without judgement can make the world of difference to somebody’s well being.
Within mental health services, it is very common for people to lose their independence. People get convinced that they are unable to live outside of services and without support. This job allowed me to remind people that they have the ability to survive on their own, they are more than their diagnosis. I had the privilege of seeing people at their most vulnerable and was trusted to support them out of crisis situations. It wasn’t an easy job all the time but the people made it worth every second. A mental health diagnosis, years of trauma and in some cases, institutionalisation would destroy the spirit of most people. But these things happen and with the right support, people can overcome all kinds of difficult situations.
Today is World Mental Health Day. It’s great that people are talking about mental health however, it simply is not enough. Something needs to be done to prevent people ending up needing 24 hour support. Changes are desperately needed in treatments; medication cannot be the only thing on offer. The whole system needs a drastic overhaul.
If you can do something to actively help someone with their mental health, do it. Even if it is just sitting with them and listening.