Sunday, September 27, 2009

Trials and Tribulations.

Well I have not posted for several days now. Unfortunately, the past few days have been very hectic and very stressful at work.

As you may know, my day job is running a charitable service that supports people who are homeless.
There are three main thrusts to our service: the first is to look after people’s physical needs; the second is community we run a drop in centre where people can simply relax and interact with staff, volunteers and each other; the third plank of our service is what we call information and referral, we offer advice, and support people in accessing other services they need to improve their lot.

Most of our service users are people who are simply down on their luck (not that there is anything simple about homelessness). But a proportion of people who we work with have significant drug and alcohol problems and/or mental health issues.

This story revolves around one young man (I’ll call him Fred to protect his identity) who has been accessing our service recently. He is clearly unwell with some form of mental illness. Most of all he is very frightened and isolated from other people.

So our tack has been to approach Fred very gently and very slowly to try to build trust. One of my team in particular (who in the tradition of protecting the innocent I will call Greg) had invested a large amount of time and effort in building a relationship. Fred was beginning to engage with not only Greg but also other staff and service users.

Finally on Wednesday he plucked up the courage to ask Greg to help him find assistance to deal with his mental health. We are trained in supporting people living with mental illness. But we are not a clinical service and what we are supposed to do in a situation like this is help people access the appropriate agency.

So Greg got on the phone to a staffer on a mental health team. Greg outlined what he saw as Fred’s problems and explained that in his opinion he needs clinical support, and could we arrange for an assessment. The person on the other end of the phone accessed Fred’s file and said to Greg that he had been discharged from their service in 2005 because at that point he was travelling relatively well.

From there it all went down hill. The mental health staffer asked to talk to Fred. Rather than doing what she should have done (which is ask non threatening questions to set him at ease and enable him to explain his current situation) she very bluntly reflected Greg’s concerns back to him and asked directly if he thought he was in a delusional state.

Now I don’t know how most of you would feel if asked by a total stranger over the phone if you are crazy. I suspect that most people would not like it, and would become defensive. Not surprisingly, Fred reacted in exactly that way. He said almost instantly that he was fine and didn’t need support.

The staffer then said to Greg that in her opinion Fred was not in need of clinical support and terminated the conversation. Fred left immediately, obviously very distressed and angry.

He came back on Thursday armed with a knife.

Fred came into our centre and confronted Greg. He was very upset, very angry and accusing Greg of calling him crazy. An absolute nightmare scenario for a community worker.

Due to where he was confronted Greg had no means of retreat. But he is a brilliant worker and reacted exactly as he should. Speaking calmly, trying to deflect the anger and calm Fred down.
I was to one side and had to juggle several things at once: making sure the police were called without provoking Fred any more; being near in case the worse happened and the threat became a physical attack; and trying to keep other clients calm, safe and also with some from attacking to protect “their” worker.
Fortunately Greg’s calm reaction enabled Fred to settle down. He put away the weapon and left.

The Police arrived in force two minutes later. Although they hunted around the area they did not find Fred.

This leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth. My staff and service users have been placed at direct risk (and me as well). Greg seems ok (he is very experienced and has a long history of dealing with difficult situations). But I know all too well that he needs to be supported (and just as importantly needs to FEEL supported) following this incident. This goes for my other staff and for service users (and myself).

Worst of all for me is Fred is still on the street. He is clearly a risk to himself and other people. The police are still looking for him, but the frightening reality is every year people like Fred get shot as police attempt to apprehend them.

Fred now has no one to turn to. This frightened lonely young man is at real risk because a service cut him adrift without follow-up years ago. Then to compound it all when he finally asked for help, someone who should be trained, who should be professional, couldn’t be bothered to take the time to do her job properly.

Now to cheer me up, a unique Aussie.
Back in August I posted this piccie and asked if anyone knew what it was.
A couple of people replied correctly that it was an Echidna. I meant to come back to this but got distracted along the way.
Despite their spiny looks Echidnas are not at all related to either porcupines or hedgehogs. They are monotremes, egg-laying mammals. Their closest living relatives are that other egg-layer the platypus. These photos are of two animals I spotted in the bush last autumn. They are very sweet, very gentle creatures and amazingly curious. When they get frightened they use their massive claws (which you can see in the above photo) to dig into the ground leaving only their spiny back exposed. If the ground is too rocky they roll into a ball. They don't seem to have an aggressive bone in their bodies. They have no teeth but use long sticky tongues to lick up ants or their favourite food termites. They use these claws to tear open rock hard termite nests, but they never seem to use them aggressively or defensively.


Lisa said...

I pulled up this comment box and then just had to sit here for a moment to absorb your post. First off, I want to applaud you for your efforts to help a portion of the population that is so often neglected. I think the story of Fred points out so many problems we have in our society. Not the least of which is an inability to truly recognize the needs of the mentally ill. If we were willing to pay better wages to the people that care for these individuals, perhaps people like the one that Greg contacted would not be what we got stuck with. So sad.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

I usually lurk but I had to post, too. What a sad story this is. The mentally ill get treated like garbage everywhere-- they are difficult to understand, expensive to treat, and easily forgotten. Thank you for sticking your neck out to help this poor man. Mother Theresa said, "Every day I see Jesus in all his distressing disguises."

I'm not too religious but that quote has always stuck with me. You are doing the work of Mother Theresa. It's hard, joyful, difficult and rewarding work.

Amanda said...

O wow. That is so heartbreaking. Sometimes I am amazed at the ineptness of some people in their line of work. And I applaud you and your co-workers efforts. I hope Fred is ok and somehow someway gets the help he needs.

And I love your Echidnas photo. It is realy adorable.

Wendy R said...

Al - Like everyone here I was moved and distressed by your post in equal proportions. And angry.
Thank you for sharing it with us. You show such generosity of spirit to Fred, and to your co workers. You need to take care of yourself too, to be there again for them and for other people like Fred, who I am sure, will come along.

You restored the balance with your photo of the Echidnas. Ironic that you say 'they don't seem to have an aggressive bone in their bodies', given the content of your early post.

Congratulations on your steady head in these things.


Kathleen Jones said...

I felt really sad, Al - these things shouldn't happen, but they do here too. We have this fictional thing called 'care in the community', which means that people are simply tossed out into the street without any support or back up and they have to commit a crime to be absorbed back into the system again. I'm full of admiration for what you (and your team) do. And I hope things turn out better for Fred.

heidenkind said...

Wow, that's tough. What a scary situation for Greg, and yet I can't help but feel bad for Fred, too. :( How sad!

On the plus side, I now know what a piccie is.

Al said...

Hi Tasha,
It was tough, fortunately Greg is very tough and was not too upset by the whole experience.
Piccie, Aussie for picture.