A Year of Volunteering in the Mental Health Sector

Wednesday, 9 January 2019 5-minute read

Note: All views expressed in this piece are entirely my own, about my personal motivation and learning, and do not represent the position of any organisation with whom I may be connected. As such, I have ensured to avoid mentioning specifics of the kind of work I or other organisations do so that it is clear that this is entirely a personal reflection.

As of the last couple of days, it would have been roughly a year since my first shift volunteering for a mental health charity. Over the course of the last year, I began working with a second organisation that provided collective advocacy for people with mental health conditions. I cannot remember what initial thought motivated me to start volunteering there. It was on somebody else’s suggestion. I was noncommittal at first, and I went through the training and background checks on autopilot. After my first few shifts, this promptly became a matter of routine: the only answer to the question of why I was doing this was that it was written on a rota. But I had an intuition, one which has gotten clearer through my experiences and readings over the last few years, and particularly in the time that I had been volunteering. These are some of my reflections on how these intuitions have evolved, and what my experiences of volunteering in the sector have been so far. I am obliged to emphasise that these views are entirely my own thoughts and reflections, and they do not represent nor are they intended to reflect the positions of organisations with which I am involved.

I have written previously about what my thoughts on the volunteering industry are. These reflections are more specifically about my feelings on why I am doing this. When I first thought of volunteering at this charity, I ran the idea past some of my friends who had the usual positive outlook on things like altruism and activism. However, these were never notions I was particularly comfortable with when I signed up. I felt myself lacking the belligerent idealism of my undergraduate years. Instead, I was confused, frustrated and scared when confronted with the enormity and myriad complexities of the issues with which I was contending: it was not just about helping people who were struggling with their mental health whom I met at the charity, but it was always part of a much bigger picture, a wider societal problem of how mental health is treated in both the therapeutic and narrative senses of that word. The former is exactly what I am not qualified for: I am neither a therapist nor clinician, but a volunteer peer support worker. The latter, on the other hand, is a subject about which I have frequently been quite exercised as a graduate student.

Various aspects of my academic interests intersect with this: I have always been interested in the medical humanities, particularly questions about power and the various structures through which societies categorise and treat people whom they consider ill. I have grown to question the various hierarchies of race, class, disability and gender that inflect what is seen as the norm against which any deviance is rendered an Other, whether it is in the context of colonial power relations or binaries of sickness and health. But for the most part, these considerations were abstract and theoretical. It was not until more recently when I read Mark Fisher and Margaret Price that I began situating this within the context of a material, social phenomenon.

That is when the more granular issues that people with chronic mental health conditions experienced — across the whole spectrum from the pain and distress they went through themselves to the stigma, hostility, discrimination, ignorance or intolerance they faced from other people — came together in a fractal whole: social problems like inequality, discrimination and the exploitation of labour by capital aggravate existing mental health conditions; our society’s attitude to treating them is to normalise the physiology and behaviour of the person experiencing in distress to enable them to work or function; our assumptions of wellness and normal functioning do not adequately accommodate the experiences of people who are different; our understanding of and empathy for individual experiences of the condition are limited to the extent that we alienate people and aggravate their distress. The state of mental health care in the United Kingdom is well past a state of crisis, and very often I find myself angry and frustrated with the lack of services or the inadequacies of policies or funding. And that is why over the year, in addition to support services, I started volunteering with advocacy groups as well.

But the truth is that looking at this big picture can be meaningless when it comes to people’s daily lives. As much as I love the idea of solving every social problem with the tact and sensitivity of a raised fist, none of this helps in a situation when you have to intervene as a first responder when somebody is in a state of extreme distress to the point of posing a serious threat to their life or safety. All one can really do is recall the training whilst fighting the urge to freeze in terror. Seeing someone in such a dark and difficult place and reaching out to them renders one vulnerable and exposed, especially when confronted with the limitations of one’s own knowledge and skills. It means being present with someone through their distress and pain, and acknowledging how deeply entangled our relationships with each other are. I wrote in my previous piece about volunteering that it represents a radical form of solidarity and collectivism that runs contrary to the neo-liberal logic of individualism and profit in a capitalist society. Building on this, I suppose volunteering here represents a similarly radical form of kindness. And while the bigger problems are of a terrifying scale and magnitude, this at least is a start.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Katy Lewis Hood for introducing me to Mark Fisher, and to the outstanding people I have had the great fortune to have worked with in these organisations.