Volunteer Training and Mental Ill-Health

At the moment I am in the process of a training progamme for my new volunteer job, which is a project that is jointly run between the school of Medicine and the school of Law at my university to provide free legal and health advice to homeless people in the city. I’m super excited to be a part of this initiative and I’m really enjoying the training so far and learning a lot. So far we have covered things like homelessness (demographics, causes, types, statutory duty to house, priority need etc), physical health problems common in homeless people (everything from STIs to infected eczema to diabetes to COPD), safeguarding adults and children, the work that local homelessness charities do, the work that the city council does to help homeless people, substance abuse, and mental health and well-being.

In the past I have suffered from severe depression which thankfully I am now in remission for but I still have my bad days sometimes. I also have had very severe anxiety which although is miles better now than it once was, still presents frequent challenges for me unfortunately. One of the ongoing symptoms of depression that I experience is chronic fatigue, and the last few days I’ve managed the 9-4 days that we’ve been doing, but with great difficulty. I am so exhausted and yet I’m really struggling to sleep properly at night. It doesn’t help that we have just moved into our new flat on Monday that is in a state of disarray (bags and boxes everywhere etc, we don’t even have a bed yet, or a sofa). Having Asperger’s syndrome means that I find change very stressful and that is an added anxiety trigger at the same time as starting new volunteer training in an unfamiliar building with people that I don’t know. This would probably make anyone a bit nervous, but for me it’s exceptionally challenging to even get up in the morning and get myself ready. Luckily my partner is extremely supportive and I wouldn’t be able to attend the training without his help.

One of the sessions today on our training programme was focused on mental health. We covered various mental health conditions as well as looking at what mental health and mental well-being are more generally. The session was lead by a consultant psychiatrist who I instantly liked – as someone who has seen a vast array of mental health practitioners I find that the initial gut instinct feeling I experience upon meeting these people is quite strong and definitely shapes my interactions with them. Obviously in this context I was a student and not a patient, which actually for me as an unfamiliar environment and a bit of an odd dynamic! I think that will take some getting used to actually. I can’t say I learnt much from this training as I’m actually very knowledgeable about mental health (unfortunately!) but I did learn some interesting stats about remission rates and the like. In fact it was far more illuminating to see the lack of knowledge of the other students in the room – and that was not limited only to the law students although there was clear divide in knowledge obviously between the medical and law students. However I am sympathetic to the medical students because the nature of a medicine degree is that there is vast amounts of detailed knowledge to acquire and it’s frankly impossible for anyone to remember all of that at any one time! I find experiences like this quite grounding because sometimes I seem to almost think that everybody else knows exactly the same things that I do – this lack of insight is probably a characteristic of Asperger’s syndrome so I doubt would surprise my mentor at uni for example. Therefore it’s good to actually be around different people from different backgrounds and see what they know about subjects that I know a lot about and actually in this case, at least for the non-medical students, it was quite clear that the quality of general knowledge about mental health conditions is pretty poor. I do find that surprising though because 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health condition at some point in our lives, and obviously that means that probably all of us will know somebody who has had a mental health condition even if we haven’t ourselves.

In all likelihood some of these people who had not the faintest idea of what schizophrenia was for example, actually will know people who have schizophrenia given that around 1 in 100 people have the condition. This raises further questions and concerns – that if so many people know so little and clearly don’t believe they know anyone with these conditions, then I suppose disclosure of a diagnosis like schizophrenia must be uncommon. I can understand why of course, what with the social and occupational stigma it (wrongly!) carries. I just get really surprised because I know many friends and family members who have experienced mental ill-health and I would assume that all people are the same in that respect given how many people an average person will know, and given how common mental health problems are. For example I have personally experienced depression and anxiety; and this is the first time I have ever told anyone this apart from my partner, but also some mild psychosis. Outside of my own experiences I also know people (friends, family, etc) who have or have experienced: depression, anxiety, emotionally unstable personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, anorexia, agoraphobia, hoarding disorder….the list probably goes on. And I’m only 22 so in all likelihood I will meet more and more people throughout my life that have these conditions and other ones beside them. Yet there were many people in the room who seemed to be under the belief that schizophrenia was a condition only experienced by violent offenders in prison or something odd like that. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done on raising awareness of mental health conditions and smashing up stereotypes associated with them.

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