Why I love working in community mental health

I’ve been musing lately on my experiences in running art therapy programs for community mental health providers.

Why creating welcoming spaces for people in crisis or experiencing extreme states matters:

Mental health sufferers face both stigma and other challenges to joining in mainstream activities. Low energy, low mood, feeling anxious, fidgety, being prone to angry outbursts, finding speaking up or staying quiet hard, having loud internal negative self talk, hearing voices  – any or all of these can make showing up hard and make finding a safe and welcoming space harder still.

Many people who come to community mental health programs often have a range of social, economic, health and trauma experiences that they are dealing with that are linked to or compound the experience of a mental illness / mental distress / mental health challenges:

  • Poverty can make it harder to afford medication or therapy
  • Trauma experiences can make it hard to relax or trust others, or to open up
  • Concentration and energy levels can make it hard to hold down work (or study), which in turn can increase social isolation, economic distress
  • People can juggle their own mental health issues while also caring for family members with mental health issues
  • Alcohol and other drugs can be used to help mask the pain but at the same time contribute to financial, social and other health challenges.

Here’s what I know even more deeply than I did before from this work:

People are complex whole beings. They are a life story, they are friends and parents and neighbours. They are dreamers and fighters and nurturers. They are carers and volunteers and advocates. They are artists and storytellers. Having a mental illness diagnosis doesn’t define a person or tell you anything of the entirety of who they are.

People have moods that come and go, we are all variable hormonal, social, responsive beings who have capacity for change, above and beyond our symptoms.

People with mental health challenges may find it hard to find or access the very resources that might help them most. Brain fog, anxious feelings, low energy and other challenging felt experiences can make remembering, researching or processing information difficult.

People are more alike than different. Our dreams and fears are remarkably similar no matter what our age, income, past experiences or current challenges. We all want human connection with people we like and trust, to feel closeness and to be respected and understood, and sometimes to be cared for and nurtured. We want some kind of physical and material stability, to attend to the basic needs of our life without all consuming stress about money, debt or housing. We want to make a contribution to the people and world around us, and we want to express ourselves in the world. We want to feel well in ourselves, healthy, and to access some kind of help, medical or otherwise, for physical/ emotional struggles we might face.

It takes guts to get help. It takes immense courage and determination to commit to doing the things we know are good for us, especially when getting there and being there can sometimes feel extremely hard.

We often think we are unique with our fears and doubts and ‘weaknesses’, and this causes shame. When we speak about our experience to supportive others it lightens our load. It also inspires others to feel better about their experience. We feel less alone when we can reveal more of who we really are and what is really going on for us.

Compassion and acceptance of ALL of us can happen gradually and in baby steps. It is an ongoing practice to show ourselves compassion, towards our limitations, towards the parts of us that are fearful, angry, hurt, hurtful. It is an ongoing practice to develop an encouraging voice that allows us to try new things and show ourselves, even when we are not ‘perfect’.

Getting help through medication, being in support groups, accessing social workers or being in one on one therapy is a really important step towards recovery.

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