Friday, March 10, 2017

The Role of Empathy in Peer and Clinical Support

* Author's note: I do not and would not claim to be, nor have I ever stated that I was or am, an expert on all things mental health related. That said, I'm writing this from experience - both, as a social worker, and a volunteer in various aspects of the mental health world. I would appreciate some grace as you read this so I ask you keep that in mind and know I do not judge YOU for the work that you do. I just encourage you to keep learning, working towards the goals you have set for yourself, and respecting all others along the way. *

Working in the mental health field is a role that I wouldn't train for anything in the world.

I truly believe that this is the place I belong.

I love my clients. I love working with people at different stages of their needs, different levels of support. All of it. I love the feeling I get when I hang up the phone and recognize that they have recognized that the work they're doing or have done MATTERS in the scheme of things that is their life.

I also love the volunteer work I do. Supporting women who are experiencing or have experienced perinatal mental health disorders is something I'd give up for - well - for absolutely no reason that I can think of at this time.

And honestly? I hope to combine the two in some way in the not so distant future.

That said - this [last week] was one heck of a week. Really intense in the world of maternal mental health. If you don't know what happened? Let me just tell you that it was hectic and chaotic and emotional and intense and there were divides and stressors and a level of unexpected openness that turned tides and thought processes and advocates stepped in and spoke loudly, myself included.

Let's leave it at that. Although I could go on for longer. For ages, probably.

And I did. A little bit.

I created a list of Postpartum Mental Health Resources.

And I explained more in my Still A Warrior post.

I wrote about Taking A Moment. Taking A Stand.

I even touched on How Four Words Can Hurt. A piece that, though not completely related, connected in some ways to the things that went down in the previous days.

But it drove me into myself a bit. And it drove me into thoughts on the work that I do.

Mind you - look at that again - if you would.

The. WORK. That. I. Do.

Many many paths that venture into the mental health sector are voluntary.

Many of them are the role of people who have been where the people they support are now, and there's nothing like peer support. Nothing like hearing those repeated 'me, too-s'.

They're so so very important.

I wouldn't pass up on those opportunities. Not ever.

But something that is so important, that is a reminder I want to make and share with anyone who ever makes a movement to support someone else.

You must show empathy.

You simply have to.

You need to consider where the individual is coming from.

As a peer supporter, or a clinician, you need to be able to - if only for a few moments - put yourself in the shoes of the person coming to you for help.

And then, maybe even more importantly? Remember that they're not YOUR shoes.

So, the history you have with postpartum mental health, the therapy you've attended, the medications you've tried - forget it. Shelve it.

Not all of it, certainly.

Remember the way you wish someone had spoken to you when you were struggling.

Remember the way you desperately needed sleep and ask her if she's sleeping.

Remember how those intrusive thoughts interfered with your days and nights and see if she's experiencing them, too.

Remember how you cringed when your baby cried and work with her to assess how she feels when she is taking care of her child, when she is left alone with them, when she feels alone.

Help her in the ways - all of the ways - you would have wanted to have been helped in your own shoes. But then, again, remember - her shoes are different.

They may look like the exact same style. Exact same brand. Maybe you purchased them at the same store. But the wear and tear on her shoes is completely different to that on your own.

No person takes steps in the same exact way. No person has the same sense of balance, the same pronation or lack of it. So no matter how much those shoes look EXACTLY the same? Remind yourself that they're not.

People suffering from mental illness need to be seen for who they are. They need you to see them and believe them. They need to feel heard. They need to know you're not just seeing them, not just holding their hand and nodding, they need to see you listening and hearing and processing what they've experienced. What they feel, currently. What they've felt before. What the people around them say, do, think.

And all of this differs - per person - certainly - but to ensure that we don't forget the other variables involved here, remind yourself that if you are a white woman, a woman of color has experienced the exact same disorder as you differently.

I know what you're thinking. OF COURSE! Of course she does. ALL women experience mental illness differently.

Yes. Yes, we - they - we all do.

But it's not just the illness that is different. It's the perspective as a Woman of Color, the community, the circles she lives in, the stereotypes that come with being a Black mother, a Latina mother, an Asian mother. There are more - obviously - I could continue for pages. But you get that. Right?

And the same as a Woman of Color could not walk in your shoes, as a White mother, because she is not you - it is critical that you are empathetic to that woman. That you listen and picture what she experiences. That you learn the questions to ask that you might not have needed when you were in the thick of it.

Cultural awareness and inclusivity. Intersectionality.

Educate yourself.

And please note that I am not just talking to you.

I'm speaking about myself here, as well. I'm taking a moment to recognize my privilege and the lack of understanding I might have about the lives other women lead.

I've been working in the mental health field for 10+ years. I obtained my Masters degree in 2003. I received my LCSW here in North Carolina in 2007 (give or take - my daughter was pretty much a newborn - I can't quite remember if it was late '07 or early '08!). I've been doing this for a long time. Not as long as others, certainly, but long enough to say - listen - listen to others who have been on these front lines before you. Listen. Learn.

I love the advocacy that I see these days. Every day I meet another person passionate about a cause that is important to them, something that has touched their lives, their families, themselves - directly. And every day I watch them move forward with big eyes and huge hearts. And I know their mission is to give of themselves to that cause.

But I worry when that mission puts them on the front lines without any or enough training to engage face-to-face with the newcomers of the battle.

And yes. I'm using words that relate to war. Mental illness can feel like a war. Medical issues can feel like a never-ending battle. Bringing in the untrained cavalry won't necessarily save everyone.

So - you - out there wanting to help? DO IT. But ensure that your understanding is accurate and your motives are pure. And that, while in many ways you're doing this for yourself (we all volunteer to feel good - it's human nature - please don't deny it, I won't believe you because I know this first-hand), you remember that you're doing this for the people who need you to. And THEY'RE who matter most.

1 comment:

  1. I used to be a trained, volunteer non-clinical advocate and support group leader/facilitator for a Crohn's & Colitis support group. And, I have Crohn's Disease, but I also recognized that my journey was not the same as others. I my "job" was to facilitate conversation and support, help someone find resources if possible, etc... We also had a set of "rules" where we didn't discuss exact dosages of meds, we weren't allowed to bash doctors, we treat other with respect, and we especially could not give specific medical advice, and empathy was part of that. Sometimes, it wasn't easy. And, making sure everyone treated others with empathy during that time was quite a task, at times. But it was worth it.

    On my own time, I was an advocate by contacting state and federal lawmakers on legislation issues important to me. I even testified at a Senate Judicial Proceedings committee three times.

    The work you do matters! Never give up! Never let others' negativity stop you from doing what you want to do!



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