Working with People with Mental Health Problems

When I was offered a job working with people with mental health problems for the first time I was very concerned at my lack of knowledge about mental health. I had been lucky enough to enjoy good mental health and, to my knowledge, had never known anybody with mental health problems, or at least, that’s what I thought at the time. I had been in full-time employment for 15 years by the time I got this job, so I certainly would have had colleagues who had/were experiencing mental health problems and of course customers and Service Users from previous places I worked, but I just didn’t know that that was the case. People didn’t talk about mental illness as there was a real stigma around this.
The small amount of knowledge I did have had come from TV and the newspapers. I had heard/read about people who were “psychotic” and this was always in the context of something they had done which was really bad. Of course newspapers would refer to “Psychos” even if the person didn’t have a mental health problem, but their act was so terrible they must be mad. Madness! One definition of this word is to have a serious mental illness, although you would never hear a GP or Psychiatrist give a diagnosis of “madness”. Madness also means “foolish, wild or chaotic behaviour.” So, if you are foolish, wild or chaotic, you must be mad, and if you’re mad you must be mentally ill.
The people I was to work with had, I was told, “severe and enduring mental health problems.” So I was worried. Would they be psychotic or wild or chaotic? Would I be at risk from them? Also I know nothing about mental health! I started reading books (this was before the internet folks) and very quickly got more confused. Manic Depression, psychotic symptoms, hearing voices, delusions, hallucinations. Ah, Schizophrenia, I’d heard of that. This is when you have a split personality, right (WRONG!).
I started my job. It was a brand new service and I was a Vocational Guidance Counsellor for people with severe and enduring mental health problems looking to get into, or back into work. People started to arrive at the service and, shock horror, they were really normal! Most were on medication which managed their condition well and that’s why they were now thinking about work. No foolish, wild or chaotic behaviour. I confided in one Service User that I was worried about my lack of knowledge about mental health. He smiled and told me that he knew enough about it for both of us and if he needed any more information about his condition, he would seek that from a Psychiatrist or Nurse, not from me! Feeling a bit useless I asked him what use I was going to be to him then. He asked if I knew anything about helping people back into work. “Oh yes! I know loads about that”, I replied. “Great!” he replied, “you’re just the person I need to help me then.”
The moral of this story is that I didn’t need to know a great deal about mental illness to help somebody get a job. An understanding of what mental health problems were, how they were treated and how they might affect a person was all I needed to know. And it’s the same with smoking and mental health. An understanding of how smoking tobacco affects mental health and some mental health medications so that you can inform people about this is all you need (click here for information on IMPACT training)

Mental illness is an illness just like any other. If I had been going to support people with diabetes to get work, I would not for a second have thought that I need to be some sort of expert in that condition, just enough knowledge to understand people’s needs in relation to getting a job. Also I would not have been worried for my own safety. Even if someone with diabetes did commit some terrible crime, it’s very unlikely that the media would link that condition to the crime, as is usually the case with mental illness.
I worked in the mental health field for many years and never needed to be an amateur psychiatrist. A person with a mental health problem is the expert in their condition and they’ll tell you everything you need to know to help you do your job. Just ask.

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