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Why Community Is Key in Mental Health Recovery

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“You’re retiring?! Who is going to help me now?”

Clients ask this to their case managers, therapists and mental health workers every day. The question boils down to one of the oldest axioms: survival. Patients want to know how they will survive after their workers retire or move on to a new position somewhere else in the mental health system.

People with severe, chronic and unpredictable symptoms stemming from a mental health condition often need a reliable, trustworthy and rational point person.

A point person can be anyone on your treatment team. That is to say, a point person can be your therapist, friend, family member, psychiatrist or case manager. Good leaders aren’t dependent on their clinical savvy or their ability to carry out complex case management. Instead, good leaders take on responsibility, own their mistakes, reap the benefits of reflecting on learning moments and are passionate in their approach to the helping process.

My first clinical supervisor would always remind me of having sound, ethical and moral underpinnings when providing psychotherapy in a mental health treatment setting. Often, brave and compassionate clinicians absorb the blame of their colleagues and lose face or damage to their reputation when entirely plausible interventions fail or are ineffective in impacting or providing relief to a patient’s symptoms that seem increasingly resistant to treatment. That’s why so many people in the helping profession, psychologists, psychiatrists, friends and family, sometimes take a step back and distance themselves from the person in crisis who would benefit from that sort of attention in their treatment.

When people need a lot of care, premature stepping down to a lower level of care or discharge from a program or inpatient facility sometimes doesn’t work out for people with a severe mental health condition. People in these circumstances may still require extra help and may even fall out of treatment given fewer supports in their life or the reduction in the frequency and intensity of psychotherapy or pharmacological therapy.

Patients can stumble or cycle back into the system without identifying how to compensate for their mental health treatment’s fall-off and titration. Even minor adjustments to treatment for people who benefit from routine can exacerbate symptoms. Patients recovering from a mental health disorder are likely to be blindsided when transitioning into a new level of care and step down in support. In some cases, depending on how difficult or compromised a person’s situation is, it can be enough to trigger, invoke anxiety and other more severe symptoms to reactivate.

Leaders and natural point people must sometimes make ethical and value-based decisions for their loved one or patient. These are decisions, which, at times, impact the care and provision of their loved one or patient’s treatment. Patients need to believe in their therapists to help them make the right decision. There are undeniably times when people with specific mental health diagnoses experience symptoms that interfere with ethical decision-making and, in some cases, are appointed lawyers, and health proxy, in advance of losing their capacity. The theory here is, while patients retain their ability, they can make the right treatment decisions for their ongoing care. A point person may need to step in with a case like this or take the lead in these emotionally difficult situations for loved ones.

With this said, when treatment takes a problematic direction, the point person becomes even more critical. In some cases, a more restrictive treatment fit may be necessary for the safety of the patients or family members.

Some adults, mental health patients in particular who are likely to have wrap-around services, may already be living in treatment homes in the community. Many patients with severe conditions live out their lives in community adult homes in a supervised living situation. These adult homes are little more than freestanding and self-sufficient inpatient wards scattered and dispersed in the community.

I am a person with lived experience who uses the mental health system and accesses it at various levels, but I have never been too reliant on the course and its resources. But, sometimes we become conditioned to it. If the system failed me, or my needs bump up against its interests, I would not be so jarred or shaken that my well-being, world-view and quality of life are at risk. In my tenure as a peer advocate and social worker, I have observed people so dependent on the system, they unlearn how to do things independently.

I have witnessed this manifest in different ways. I have seen clients yell and scream at their workers in the community in a supermarket cashier lane, in community centers or hospital waiting rooms, just because they have no other emotional outlet to vent. I have also experienced being yelled at because my clients were so isolated and disconnected from natural supports. Since, as a mental health worker, I was a representative of the system (both literally and figuratively), it was the only option for some clients to release their extreme build-up of negative emotions and disturbing thoughts.

The cases I describe aren’t as rare, far and few in-between, as you may think in today’s mental health treatment settings. I have worked within a very populated, economically diverse region with a vast spectrum of needs and a range of supposed functioning. In my experience with patients, the focus is “getting better” and not always thinking about or concerning themselves with their condition’s extreme nature or complex situations.

Patients losing access to mental health treatment sometimes incite them to make noise and complain to their local community mental health board. The irony is, often these boards can reinstate services in only limited clinical landscapes. Mainly, if a person’s symptoms begin to overtake their coping mechanisms and their behavior becomes so alarming, the patient rebounds into the system through the hospital. Such is the public safety argument for mental health treatment in the community.

I get it. As social workers and peer advocates, we often want to fix our clients’ problems. Sometimes, due to the system’s limitations or constraints, we clinicians have to go ahead and do things for our clients. Instead of teaching people to remember their appointments or make sure our clients attend a session, sometimes we social workers go on and make reminder calls or reach out to clients to check in with us, instead of teaching clients to access services independently.

Whether due to immigration, race, medical concerns, age or ageism, all of these intersections that impact learned helplessness contribute to its power over the population, furthering our reliance on systems that disconnect and estrange us from the broader community.

We need to get to know our neighbors, the people around us, who live amongst us. Whether we are helpers or help seekers, living is about survival, and people are more likely to succeed banded together and looking after one another. I believe being reliant upon a system, and letting something else define the problem for us, instead of the community identifying its issues, estranges us from network building and bonding with our peers.

I feel we have lost the essence of community building and humanity’s very fabric, which isn’t afraid to band together and change what needs changing. The less human contact and empathy, the less we care about one another and what’s at stake for our friends, families and those we love to get what they need for themselves.

Getty image by nadia_bormotova

Originally published: March 12, 2021
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