Since returning to school and focusing much of my M.Ed. studies on mental health education, I have had the goal of transitioning to a new career that includes working in the field of mental health. Through my volunteer work with Canadian Mental Health Association – Niagara I have had the opportunity to meet many individuals who are living with mental illness. While we each have our own unique experiences, there is often a connection on a visceral level as our struggles and successes resonate with someone else who has “been there.” I recognize that I am not a clinician with respect to mental illness, but I have felt that a peer-to-peer relationship can provide a special kind of support.
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, peer support is proven to be both an effective and cost efficient method of assisting individuals living with mental illness (http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/issues/peer-support): “Empowerment and the development of personal resourcefulness — the foundation of peer support — not only improves people’s lives but also saves money by reducing the use of more formal mental health, medical, and social services.”
So, when I saw that The Niagara Region’s Public Health department was advertising for a Recovery Support Worker in the Mental Health Unit, I was excited about the possibility. The Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACTT) is designed to assist individuals with the most serious and persistent mental illness, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Individuals supported by this service often have co-existing problems such as homelessness, substance abuse or involvement with the judicial system.
I excitedly applied for the role in November of last year, and was sure that the position had been filled when I received an email invitation to interview in mid-March. I felt very positive about the interview and the Managers who were on the hiring committee and was beyond thrilled to be offered the job a few weeks later. I accepted with great enthusiasm and more than a little nervousness; I would be both new to this job and to the field of direct service in the mental health field.
My start date quickly arrived – it felt like the first day of school. The night before I woke up every hour, checking the clock fearing I might oversleep. I consciously completed my work attire with earrings and a necklace that had been given to me by people I love, thereby creating my own Linus blanket and providing me with a little comfort to assuage my nervousness. My car seemed to know exactly which way to drive after spending so many years travelling to Brock University for work and, more recently, for school; I just had to remember to turn left just a bit sooner to make my way to the Region.
My anxiety was quickly lessened as I was greeted by welcoming colleagues. My day began with the regular team meeting, followed by a whirlwind tour of the Welland and Niagara Falls sites, and the opportunity to accompany one member of my team on her client visits in the afternoon. I was struck by how she connected with each of the individuals in a caring and respectful manner. While I felt overwhelmed by my own inexperience working directly with clients in a mental health setting, I was confident I was in the right workplace.
The following two days I travelled to Welland to job shadow with the other Recovery Support Worker who was the original peer support person on the team and had chosen to work in Welland where she lived when the second ACT team was created there. She had been in her role for the last 10 years, and had previously worked with CMHA. I was awed by her calm, caring approach to everyone she met, and her connection with the clients she visited. I was thankful to have the opportunity to observe her while she worked, and especially for the time she took to talk with me about the role, her approach and the importance of peer support. I was grateful for her kind words of encouragement when I expressed my fears about being able to provide worthy support and connection to the people I would be serving and to adequately represent the perspective of individuals living with mental illness on the team.
As I write this blog, I have completed my first week at my new job. My brain is full each evening, but so is my heart. I know I have a lot of learning still to do, and that I am privileged to have been given an opportunity to work in this capacity; I will endeavor to earn the trust I have been given by fulfilling the role to the very best of my ability, providing support, empowerment, and hope to those who are in need.
Next up: 50 Fabulous Feats: The Workshop!