As I splashed the first coat of purple gel polish on Lisa’s* nails, we started talking about her anxiety.
She was a mental health service-user in a rehabilitation ward but was being discharged and was nervous about a few things – her medication, where she would stay following her release and how her friendships would change.
I was volunteering on the ward at the time as a befriender, providing social and emotional support to service-users so I was just there to listen and help in any way I could.
I couldn’t give her answers to those big questions about life after discharge, but I could help her feel more comfortable asking them.
We spoke about what was making her feel anxious and then – in between doing her nails – wrote a to-do list to ensure she would remember exactly what to mention to nurses and doctors when they visited her.
This included her housing, medication (on which Lisa was experiencing negative side effects) and courses she was interested in studying at the local college.
Just talking Lisa through her worries and writing down some next steps helped calm her down and lift a weight from her shoulders. It also gave her a real confidence boost and, by having a friendly face who would frequently visit, Lisa felt less lonely.
This feeling is just one of the reasons why I’m passionate about volunteering in mental health wards – having previously struggled with my own mental health, I feel it’s important for me to help those in crisis where I can.
Initially, I had studied Property and Planning for two years at Westminster University. During this time, my mental health took a turn and I found myself struggling with self-harming and depression.
In the years leading up to my crisis, my parents had divorced and I had some difficult relationships. This eventually caught up with me and I found myself having to leave my university course.
I felt a stigma against my mental health struggles as it wasn’t something any of my friends or family could resonate with, so this was a lonely experience for me.
However, after persevering with various therapies and developing my spirituality, I finally came to the light at the end of the tunnel. I had no intention of returning to Westminster as I felt my purpose was to use my experience to help others. From here, I began studying Psychology with the Open University.
My volunteering journey all started in August 2021 when I contacted Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust and began helping with the shop trolley.
I would visit all wards at St Pancras Hospital and Highgate Mental Health Centre selling snacks and drinks to staff and service-users. This is particularly helpful to those who are unable to leave the hospital but still want to be able to enjoy a treat!
I was nervous to start and it was difficult to know what to expect because I hadn’t done anything like this before. But the staff were so supportive – they really want you to be comfortable and are always there to help.
Following this experience, I knew I wanted to find a career in the field and that was why I joined the Volunteering to Career programme. It’s a national programme – supported by the charity Helpforce – to help volunteers pursue their careers in health and care.
Because I was so interested in a career within the Trust, I was offered other volunteering roles, which gave me great hospital-based experience.
I took on the Restraint Debrief Volunteering role, which aims to support service-users after they have been restrained for their own safety and wellbeing. It is an opportunity to give service-users who have had to be restrained a voice and an opportunity to reflect and feedback on the event from their perspective.
This helps support breaking down the stigma of mental health, highlighting that an individual’s voice is important, even if unwell.
As you can imagine, it was important to receive full training for restraint debriefing. For this training, head of volunteering services Joanne Scott would accompany myself and another volunteer to each restraint debrief in both St Pancras and Highgate. For the first few debriefs, Jo would ask service-users questions regarding their restraint and I would write down relevant information.
As I became more confident in this role, I was able to complete restraint debriefs with just myself and my buddy volunteer.
I sat with service-users in a quiet space and asked them what may have caused the restraint and how we could improve their time on the ward. We would also provide information on finding an advocate, should a person wish to file a complaint.
Debriefings also help hospital staff to understand how service-users feel and what they can do better next time to avoid the need for restraint. Although I have completed many of these, a few have stayed with me.
A young person had been struggling with self-harming, so they had a fresh wound and blood on their sheets. After being given medication as part of being restrained to help them relax when they were distressed, they were unable to speak. This made it hard for them to communicate with staff on what was causing the behaviour.
Martin, a fellow debrief volunteer, and I tried to create a safe space for this individual. As they were unable to sit on their bed, we lowered ourselves to join them on the floor to show them we were there with them and we weren’t rushing off.
It’s incredibly rewarding to see the impact of my help and experience on others
It is important we present ourselves as a friendly face and ensure a person knows we are there to do whatever we can to help them feel heard. Because this service-user was unable to speak, we worked together to communicate via their phone.
I could tell they were becoming more comfortable with us, and they eventually told us their issue. After establishing communication, it became clear that their medication was causing negative side effects including self-harming. They had told staff that this particular medication did not work for them but this still hadn’t been changed.
It was then our duty to inform the staff about this to get the medication changed as soon as possible.
Another example of a restraint debrief was with a gentleman who had been in distress and causing violence on the ward. Upon speaking with him, I discovered that religion is important to him and being on the noisy ward meant he was unable to pray every day. He needed a quiet space and we were then able to liaise with staff to find somewhere suitable.
This stuck with me as my faith has been an important role in my recovery and I completely understood how important prayer was to this service-user. This man was not violent and after completing the debrief, it was great to see how relieved he was. Just making this change meant that his experience had completely transformed into a positive one.
It’s incredibly rewarding to see the impact of my help and experience on others and I strongly recommend that more young people look to volunteer.
Volunteering has been integral in helping me through my mental health journey. I’ve had the opportunity to work with service-users from all walks of life. I have learnt about other cultures and helped so many service-users feel heard. Volunteering has helped my confidence grow massively – I have been able to participate in a conference and have spoken about my story to 150 people!
I felt such a stigma at so many points in my journey, so helping break this barrier for others is hugely gratifying.
Following being part of this volunteer programme, I’ve actually been able to accept a paid job at the Trust, which is to be a Peer Coaching worker.
The role involves seeing people who use the service in a variety of venues – from participating GP practices to home visits – to identify what is most important to them and improve their health and wellbeing.
I am so grateful to have been able to secure this role and can’t wait to help more people in the future.
Helpforce is a not-for-profit organisation that partners with health and care organisations across the UK to accelerate the growth and impact of volunteering.
*Name has been changed
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk.
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Volunteers’ Week takes place 1-7 June and highlights the amazing ways people can give back and help others. To get involved click here.
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