Talking mental health

Mental Health Outreach Workers

As we approach World Mental Health Day on 10 October we’ve been talking to Sarah O’Connor and Emily Snowden who are mental health outreach workers employed by both Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust and Age UK Islington to get some insights into their work

Tell us a bit about your backgrounds.
Emily: I used to live and work in Papua New Guinea, as a volunteer manager.  I have worked in the area of health research for more than six years, and my last role was coordinating a vaccination trial for London School of Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). I have a master’s in ethics and human rights, and I am interested in how we can live happy and content lives individually but also together as a society. This led me to complete my master’s in psychology where I researched positivity and wellbeing from a physiological perspective. Now, as a mental health worker, I am in the privileged position of working with people to find their own way to happiness and wellbeing.

Sarah: I have worked in mental health services for more than 30 years: 16 years working in occupational therapy on different acute mental health wards, in service users’ homes and in the community. I have served on the board of governors for the East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFT) for the City of London. I then took a role across two London boroughs for the NHS trust, establishing service user and carer involvement in strategic and local service delivery. Missing front line service user contact, I moved to a community mental health team, providing occupational therapy interventions. I volunteer in my spare time as a Community Mediator.

What is the role of a community health outreach worker?
Sarah: As community health outreach workers, we are the bridge between the voluntary sector and the NHS Mental Health team, helping clients to untangle and tackle some of the things that are going on in their lives and also to help them access the rich variety of support that is available in the community provided by voluntary sector organisations.

It can be a challenge to talk about mental health when feelings and emotions are difficult to describe, and life is rarely simple. We are learning that mental health issues arise out of a complex interrelationship of our surroundings, environment, lifestyle and relationships. We know that mental health is often entwined with so many other things and it is important to consider the whole picture of someone’s life when talking about mental health.

The combined effect of financial issues and other day-to-day problems can express itself differently in different people, from heightened anxiety and depression in some, to compounding more deep-rooted mental health issues in others.  Other people will experience stress, but find their way through the situation. It’s all very personal and a result of so many factors to do with who we are and our previous experiences.

Emily: The good news is that when someone is finding things too much and feeling that they’re not able to cope, in our capacity of Mental Health Outreach Workers, we are able to give time to understand what a client is going through.  We provide a listening ear and work together with the person, suitable community partners and NHS mental health services to help clients start to see some light at the end of a tunnel. This is with the aid of tools and support in place to help them in their current circumstances and in the longer term. The idea is to treat the whole of the person and their circumstances rather than tackle things piecemeal.

What are the advantages of working between the NHS and Age UK Islington?
Emily: Clients don’t have to struggle alone with these issues and that is where the new model of mental health care can help. The good news is that we as Community Mental Health Outreach Workers can work with a client to unpick the complexity of feelings and of a situation.  Because we are based in the community we have access to community knowledge and organisations out in the community and the flexibility to meet a client in their own home or nearby venue.

Working closely with members of the NHS mental health teams, means that it is easier for clients to access support e.g. talking therapies or psychological support, together with help to overcome the issues of day-to-day living that can otherwise really impact on mental health – making ends meet, not being isolated, or having the right support to live independently at home.

When is a client referred to you?
Sarah: It might be from their GP, from the core mental health team or by colleagues within Age UK Islington.  The NHS mental health team can provide psychological support including talking therapies and / or coaching through a time of crisis alongside psychological therapy from a peer worker – someone who can use their own experiences to help someone else. The team also have doctors, social workers, nurses and an occupational therapist.

Are there any patient stories that stand out to you?
Sarah: We recently helped an unpaid carer, Fatima, and her mum who had mobility issues and were both socially isolated. Fatima was feeling overwhelmed, stressed and highly anxious about her financial situation and very much on her own. Sarah was able to work together with Islington Carers Hub, a service provided by Age UK Islington, and local organisations to provide support with benefits and debt.  An occupational therapist from the NHS mental health services was also able to help Fatima’s mum overcome her fear of tripping and falling, with the help of home adaptations and a walking aid. She received emotional support from Emily, the means of finding some paid-caring support to give Fatima short breaks from caring 24-seven during the week, and a referral into talking therapy with a local mental health charity.  Sarah worked with Fatima to find social groups that would be of interest to Fatima and befriending support for her.

Another was Lucy, who was exhausted and overwhelmed and couldn’t continue any more. She was looking after small children and sleep deprived, because her neighbours were playing music for many nights. Despite the adverse circumstances, she didn’t want to tell anyone she was struggling as she already felt like a failure. Her flat and surroundings were in need or urgent repair and maintenance.  Emily was able to help organise support from a local organisation that could help with mediation with the neighbours and to put in place a remedial plan for her housing situation together with her housing association and other suppliers.  Emily also worked with colleagues in NHS Mental Health Services to arrange a type of therapy for Lucy to help with feelings of failure and to develop some tools to manage intrusive thoughts.

If you think you could benefit from the support of a mental health outreach worker, contact your GP or phone the Age UK Islington helpline on 020 7281 6018. You can find out more about mental health support in Islington on the Islington Council website. Islington Council also offers various public health training, including for mental health.

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