May 16, 2012

Getting closer to people with mental illness in your church or community

I think that we focus too much on mental illness treatment, and not enough on friendship. America’s trained therapists amount to around 0.05 percent of the US population. There’s a lot left for the 99.95 percent of Americans who aren’t therapists to do.

The truth is that any group that can support a little training can do effective outreach to people with mental illness. Volunteers will need some modest basic training and refreshers once or twice a year. They will need modest supervision and a phone number for crisis situations they can’t handle. They need to take the same organizational precautions they would take for any other activity (work in groups of two or more, meet in public places, keep some basic records, and so on).

Training is not an obstacle. Mental illness is not that complicated. It takes two to three hours to cover basic signs and symptoms and a little bit about medication in a community college or workplace setting. It’s one or two chapters, about 25-50 pages in my book. Most of what an ordinary schoolteacher, church volunteer, or youth worker needs to know about mental illness can be covered in one or two sessions.

Use my book Defying Mental Illness to train your volunteers. It is simpler than anything else available. One minister told me that we covered everything he needed to know about any issue in two or three pages, never ten or twenty.

Create social and recreational events that build relationships and friendship. Invite your whole constituency, not just people with disabilities.

If you find yourself working with people who have little access to mental illness support, start a “mini support group.” This is not treatment, not even a real self-help group like AA. Your goal is to promote safety by providing some opportunity to check in on a friendly basis. Put two volunteers in charge. Meet on some sort of scheduled basis. Start with some small ritual to convene your group – a prayer for instance. Cover your ground rules and program for the day in one minute or less. One of the ground rules should relate to safety – you will always call out for help when needed. Then let everyone have a chance to “check in.”

Take turns covering four points.

What have you accomplished since the last time we met? At the very least, people managed to come to this event, and that’s good enough.

What are you facing? People need a chance to say what they are dealing with and also need to know that they are being heard. Resist giving advice. The point of this 4-question check-in is simply to invite people to say they are working on their own challenges.

Who are your allies? Chances are that people already have someone helping them. If someone is all alone and has no allies, people can talk about how to connect with another group or resource (but after the “meeting”).

What is your plan? Let the person say what he plans to do. Don’t jump in or interrupt. This is his plan, not yours. The minimum plan is to check in again at some future time.

You want the mini-support group to be non-stigmatizing, so everyone must be invited to join in, even the so-called “normals.” Everyone also has a right to pass on participating.

Don’t make the 4-question check-in the point of your gathering. It’s just one way of making sure everyone is okay so you can focus on the potluck and the bingo.

1 comment:

stressed out said...

That is a very good idea :) and for me, someone which suffers with mental health problems, they are very good questions to ask and anyone willing to help volunteer with people which suffer from mental health problems are very helpful and are making a big difference :) xx