Ten things volunteers should know about mental health
1. What is Mental Health?
Sometimes called “emotional health” or “wellbeing”, mental health is just as important as physical health. Everyone will experience times when they feel down, stressed or frightened. These feelings usually pass, but sometimes symptoms develop further. As a person’s circumstances change, mental health will also change. Mental health is a useful “cover-all” term for a number of conditions - the most common are stress or anxiety, but the term also covers a lack of confidence, feelings of persecution, depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm, obsessive compulsive disorder, low self-esteem, body dysmorphic disorder, psychosis, and eating disorders (amongst many other conditions).
2. Who experiences Mental Health problems?
One in four adults and one in ten children feel some symptoms of mental illness; it is a common human experience. Everyone will know someone who has experienced a mental health problem: it happens to all kinds of people from all walks of life. People with a mental health illness are not dangerous or different, just in a challenging place. It is very likely that they will recover with a combination of self-care and treatment. The COVID-19 pandemic means that many people - adults and children alike - may feel more stressed and anxious than usual.
People may not be comfortable acknowledging they have a mental health issue and many will suffer in silence for years. Unfortunately, there is still widespread stigma and discrimination towards people with mental health problems, and misunderstanding about what different diagnoses mean. Fortunately much is being done to overcome this stigma with high profile campaigns such as Speak Up and Heads Up spearheaded by the Prince of Wales and the FA.
One consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is increased isolation and loneliness – strongly associated with anxiety, depression, self-harm, and even suicide attempts. If anyone you are supporting is vulnerable to these types of symptoms, discuss this with your host organisation.
4. Addiction and Mental Health
Of all people diagnosed as mentally ill, 29 percent abuse either alcohol or drugs. Addiction problems may have started as a way to self-medicate the symptoms of an undiagnosed mental health issue. Addiction and mental health illness are inextricably linked, making the diagnosis more challenging, but with a good treatment plan the issues can be addressed. If you are concerned about a vulnerable person is not coping then refer to your host organisation for advice.
Doctors prescribe medication to help people manage symptoms and to improve patient outcomes. However, not all medicines are taken as prescribed and this can increase the risk of serious problems. During “lockdown” these problems can be exacerbated by the disruption to support networks, isolation, and problems collecting prescriptions. If you are concerned please ask your host organisation for guidance.
Some people self-harm to help them explore or manage their feelings. Self-harming is a way of dealing with life, not ending it, but it can entail very serious risks. If you encounter signs that someone is self-harming, ask your host organisation for advice.
During “lockdown”, police nationally report an increase in suicide and suicide attempts. If you have a general concern that someone may feel suicidal, address this at once with your host organisation. If you have a specific concern, raise this urgently with your host organisation as a safeguarding issue. In an emergency, always dial 999.
People experiencing poor mental health can feel anger, even rage, and can express this anger without obvious reason or provocation. If you experience this, try to stay calm and give people time and space to express themselves. If you feel uncomfortable, threatened or personally abused, politely and calmly end the interaction and report the matter to your host organisation, who will advise on next steps.
9. Is the person coping?
Mental health services remain under-resourced, but the situation is gradually improving. In Hertfordshire, services are co-ordinated by Herts Partnership Foundation Trust, Herts County Council, and voluntary organisations such as MIND. If you are concerned that someone is not coping or does not have any support in place, then raise this with your host organisation for a response. You may need to follow the safeguarding procedure if appropriate.
10. Carers, partners and volunteers
The families of people suffering poor mental health are also likely to be under great pressure. Remember to consider their support needs, too, and if necessary flag this to the host organisation and follow the safeguarding procedure.
As a volunteer, you too may have your own stresses and anxieties – remember to look after yourself and seek help if necessary.