In 2021 I spent a decent amount of time with the regional Canadian Mental Health Association in a couple roles. First, I tried volunteering on the distress line and then I got involved with a committee and fundraising. There's no doubt the not-for-profit organizations have struggled during the pandemic, but what struck me was society's attitude toward mental wellness. The stigma of depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. is slowly eroding away. Yet, I am still trying to help raise funds for assistance. In particular, how is that money spent?
I can look at the annual report and give you specific numbers, but like so many things in our world the answer is always "more money is needed." I promise I am not going to go off on one of my capitalism rants. I also do not need to tell you about how badly mental health is underfunded. Certainly the pandemic has drawn more attention to the issue as we all isolate and no longer have those connections humans desire. There has been some increase into funding mental health because governments recognize that should we find "normal" again, after the pandemic, mental wellness services will be needed.
There, we have more money. Well, that's that. Thanks for reading.
The programs in place were already underfunded. Any boost allows organizations to pay their bills. Or perhaps, they can expand counseling resources from two therapists to three. Group homes can get the maintenance they needed 4 years ago. A help line may now have the funds to be 24 hours or start a texting service as well. There is a large need in our communities going unfilled. Naturally, any money going to not-for-profits should expand their services to help more people.
I mentioned that I volunteered at the distress line. It was a very challenging situation for me personally. I entered the training believing that this role would help me keep many of the strategies I have learned in my mental wellness journey. Use it or lose it, practice makes pattern (not perfect!) and all that. I received a great deal of training at no cost to me and the professionals were there during every call I took. Afterwards, I would be debriefed and offered any assistance I may need. If those on site couldn't help me with a troubling call, I could speak to a therapist through a health plan that the organization has. Volunteers getting health benefits? That's cool.
I lasted a few months before I decided that wasn't the position I was ready for at this moment in my life. I may share more of that story in the future, but in the end I do not fit into the crisis model. Again, because we have ignored mental health for so long as a society, these distress lines are incredibly busy. Thus, the need for volunteers. Financially it isn't possible to have psychologists and therapists on the line for 24 hours. The crisis model is used by volunteers to help callers get through the immediate emotions. Moving callers from panic to concern, for example. Then, volunteers and callers come up with strategies should a similar situation happen again. Finally, volunteers offer the contact information for more long-term services. In this model, volunteers can help more callers. Referring people to long-term services means I am not on the phone for 3 hours with someone. It is also important because it doesn't create a dependency. If you are calling me 4 times a day, I cannot help others.
A Thought Experiment
Imagine if we really funded mental health as we did COVID-19? What if those of us volunteering at the crisis line were actually paid for our experience? We value programs to help community wellness, but do we recognize the roles of those within it?
As I said, that fast moving crisis model wasn't for me. Still, others thrived. Many of the volunteers eventually do more training and become paid staff. It's a tough field, though. In my search for someone to talk to I briefly saw a counselor connected to an addictions clinic. The individual took some time off and I was reassigned. When they returned, I saw them for a couple months and then they left permanently. Most of us have encountered issues at work where there just are not enough people on hand to finish projects on time and efficiently. It is very stressful. Now, imagine that in a mental health setting where people come in 8+ hours a day and tell you such intimate and difficult stories. Burnout must be inevitable.
In a similar story, my first attempt at getting help was at a teaching hospital. One day a week they do intakes for a program. They interview everyone that shows up in a 3 hour period. From there, they only admit those with the greatest need. I was turned away. Setting aside my emotions, imagine that as your job. "It sounds like a difficult situation, dealing with suicidal thoughts twice a day. However, at this time we cannot admit you to the program (because I just met someone thinking about killing themselves 4 times a day)." You work at a place so underfunded that you are weekly turning away people who may die. Burnout is inevitable in this situation.
Personally, I believe I could better serve in a group situation where I could share my experience and have those long-term connections with group members. Sometimes this is called peer support. Many organizations have a professional and someone with lived experience lead a mental health group. I have been looking for a space to do this kind of work instead of the distress line work. I feel it is a calling of sort. Of course, I cannot live on volunteer work alone. I must make money. Thus, this blog is somewhat self-serving. It would be amazing if I could find a position like facilitating a group and to receive pay for it. Unfortunately, that's not a reality at this time.
Kudos to all the work we've done as a society to combat the stigma surrounding mental health. There is progress to be proud of, but no amount Silcon Valley startups offering apps for video therapy or phone counseling at a small subscription price are going to move us forward. We need to fund mental health like we fund a military. The private sector is all about profit for shareholders and they cannot be in charge of health, mental health, or education for that matter. We'll get more prescriptions from big pharma, instead of funding people with lived experience and history to help others. Nobody wants to live in a world where we have to subscribe to pay for our life giving organs. Mental health care needs to be taken seriously not only by society, but by government and budgets. The people doing the work do not need achievement awards or LinkedIn reviews. They need to be fairly compensated and respected.