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Overcoming a Lack of Awareness of Mental Health Issues

By Sherry Clark
From , The National Center for Volunteering, 2003, pp. 19-21

Some of us manage volunteers ‘at the coalface’, others work as ‘second tier’ co-ordinators, developing national volunteer programmes with little or no day-to-day contact with volunteers, still others act as volunteer ‘brokers’ – volunteer bureau staff, bridge builders or support staff who match volunteers to external placements in the community. Whatever our role, we are no more immune to the influences, biases and sources of misinformation surrounding mental illness than any other member of the general public.

Because of our lack of awareness about the effects of mental illness, we sometimes react to it in predictable ways, some of which are listed here:

It’s human nature to fear the unknown. In addition, if something is portrayed as terrifying, dangerous and unpredictable, regardless of how factually true the portrayal may be, we’re still afraid. Very few people are willing to ‘come out’ about their illness so we have very few examples of the positive ways people successfully cope with mental illness in their daily life. What we have instead are cultural stereotypes of madness: in the movies, on TV, in newspapers. Is it any wonder many of us are too scared to consider working with people with experience of mental illness? Hardly. Is it any excuse for not involving people? Absolutely not.

What to do
Most of us could benefit from a healthy dose of reality and a bit of myth-busting. Contact … a local mental health support group and ask them if they can deliver some mental health awareness training. Ask a service user to come and talk about what it’s really like to live with mental illness. ...

Many disabilities are uncomfortable reminders of our own vulnerability to accidents, ageing and illness. Issues around working and supporting people experiencing mental ill health can be especially uncomfortable for many people. We know so little about its causes and, because of its devastating effects on families, work and life circumstances, we don’t like to think how it might affect us. And we often alienate people because of our discomfort.

What to do
The best way to lessen the effects of people’s discomfort is through education and information. Direct exposure training, awareness raising and a pro-active, open approach to discussing uncomfortable issues will go a long way towards alleviating any discomfort….

The Spread Effect
Have you ever noticed how you tend to speak louder to people who don’t speak English? As if, because they don’t speak English, they’re also hard of hearing. That’s the spread effect in action. We make decisions about people’s abilities based on one, simplistic observation. With mental illness, it can get pretty ugly. Judgments are made about people’s intellectual capacity, their emotional state, their ability to work; all sorts of incorrect assumptions are made and limitations imposed as a result of the ‘mental illness’ tag. For example, just try to get travel insurance if you have a diagnosis of manic depression.

What to do
Look at behaviour patterns. People often try to simplify their language, in the mistaken belief that they’re making themselves understood to someone who doesn’t understand ‘normal’ instructions. Are people assuming that mental ill health co-exists with some sort of intellectual impairment? Make sure you and your staff are clear on the distinction between mental illness and learning disabilities. While some people with learning disabilities may also experience mental ill health, mental illness does not signify a learning disability.

Even with the best will in the world, trying to ‘say the right thing’ can tongue tie the most articulate of us. It’s often not so much a problem of language as the embarrassment people feel if they think they’ve made a mistake. Should we refer to ‘people with mental health issues’ as just that, or maybe as ‘sufferers/survivors’, ‘clients’, ‘consumers’, ‘service users’ or just plain ‘users’? And do they ‘suffer from’, ‘experience’ or just plain ‘have’ ‘mental ill health’, a ‘mental illness’, a ‘psychiatric disability’ or ‘mental distress’?

What to do
We worry about causing offence by using the wrong language and can end up with both feet in our mouths because we forget who we’re talking to and focus on how we’re saying it. A young volunteer with enduring mental health problems advised me recently, “I really don’t care if you call me a ‘service user’ or ‘sufferer/survivor’ or whatever. As long as you speak to me like I’m a real person instead of some kind of non-entity, I’m going to be happy.” Ask people what they prefer and be flexible. Focus on plain, clear, honest communication and bin the jargon.

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