Yesterday I went to one of those events where you get to hear about a rare new pot of money, some of which may trickle down to small voluntary organisations in order that they may make a difference to increasingly desperate people’s lives. That’s after the big guys have creamed off all their profits….but let’s not go there. I met up with a colleague who runs a small mental health charity that does extraordinary things and promotes creativity, positivity, and healthy lifestyle to people who are struggling with their mental health.
“I’m losing staff,” said my colleague. “They can’t cope with the number of people who are dying. Four of our service users committed suicide over the past few months, and we learnt of another three who died through self-neglect.”
Just hold that thought: we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet vulnerable people, all of whom have had contact with our mental health systems, are dying because they’re not feeding themselves and nobody’s checking to see if they’re alive or dead. What does that say about the degree to which we invest in caring – or not caring – for those who are struggling the most in our communities?
The mental health charity, MIND, received 50% more calls to its helpline in 2012/13 than in the previous year. People are facing more complex problems, and many are being triggered by financial crises and unemployment. The Office for National Statistics reports that suicide rates rose significantly in 2011, from 11.1 deaths per 100,000 to 11.8. Meanwhile, the number of mental health inpatient beds has been slashed, according to a BBC News and Community Care magazine report, the findings of which were broadcast on 16th October. A Freedom of Information question revealed that at least 1,711 beds had been closed since April 2011, including 277 between April and August 2013. This equates to a 9% reduction in acute care provision. At the same time, local authority spending cuts are having a massive impact on community services. In the borough where I work, all mental health day centres have been closed; most community support work is carried out in public spaces such as coffee shops (all the more profit to Starbucks, Costa, et al), and people’s access to support is time-limited. They can, of course, apply for personal care budgets, but the pot is diminishing, fewer people are eligible, and at my organisation we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in those being funded for placements with us. That means that more people are lonely and scared and don’t have anywhere to go. And then there are our colleagues on the front line of advice and support organisations, and those working with elderly people who don’t know whether to stay warm or eat….These are some of the big political issues of our time, and there are many ways in which we might attempt to tackle them. But in the meantime, community and voluntary organisations are on the front line. Not only do we have the increasingly challenging task of advocating for, supporting, and enabling our clients, but we also have to try to stay alive in the face of budget cuts and dwindling resources.
So how do we make sure that those of us running services stay healthy, and maintain the spirit and energy to do an increasingly demanding job – keeping our staff and volunteers buoyant; creating new ideas that someone may want to fund; writing bid after bid to bring in the money? I asked my colleague. “I go away,” she said. “I get as far away as I can, preferably somewhere where I don’t speak the language and where my phone won’t work.” My coaching clients invest in time to think and vent and explore the complex issues with which they’re bombarded in the office. Here are some other things that may help:
- Find a mentor/external supervisor who works some distance from where you work: use the journey to have some quiet thinking and reflection time, both there and back.
- Group supervision is a helpful way of sharing resources, approaches, and solutions, and I think is particularly important for organisations working in mental health. Find someone you trust, and who knows about mental health, to facilitate.
- Be transparent: as far as possible keep your team in the loop with what the problem is, what you’re doing about it, and how they can help.
- Give people opportunities to create solutions. That way they’ll feel that they have some power and influence in the situation.
- Take care of yourself: enroll in a yoga or qi gong class; learn some mindfulness techniques and incorporate meditation into your life; get plenty of aerobic exercise (I feel better on the days when I cycle to work); get plenty of daylight, and if your work space is dark, invest in a daylight lamp; eat healthy, natural foods; cut down on sugar and alcohol.
- People who are resilient maintain a good network of friends and supporters. Make time for fun and friendship.
- You won’t have all the skills and knowledge yourself to keep your organisation on track, so make sure your team – including your board/management committee – have the skills that you don’t. Bring in volunteers, advisors, whatever you need to make positive change happen. Charity Days can put you in touch with people willing to work with you for free, or at a reduced rate. Local businesses can be a great resource. Check out Pilot Light.
- Build alliances and partnerships: strength and creativity in numbers!
- “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”
― Elizabeth Edwards
- Continue to visualise yourself and your organisation as successful; focus on what’s working. Paying too much attention to what’s not, or to the problems, will take up brain energy that you need for getting through the tough times.
And yes, I have to work hard at all this too! Do contact me if you’d like to join a coaching/support group, or are interested in one to one work, and please do reply with your own tips for staying alive.