Okay, so maybe this isn’t the proper forum to be weighing pros and cons of volunteer opportunities. So far I’ve shadowed two MHA (Mental Health Association of Orange County) Hearing Advocates to three different hospitals over two Fridays. Last Friday I was sick, and the Hearing Advocate I had hoped to shadow never called.
(I’m using the term patient, not consumer, in this post since I’m talking about hospitals. I consider myself both a consumer of mental health services and a patient of my mental health providers.)
The hospital nearest my home also happens to be the nicest of the three at which I trained. I mean, how many hospital psych wards have ocean views? I do not know if the program is as good as it was a decade ago when I was voluntarily admitted. I was inpatient for two weeks and partially hospitalized for a few months until the program got repetitive. Back then the hospital was under different ownership and their program was highly respected and highly structured. Patients were not allowed to mill about and loiter. You were in group, actively participating, or you were to stay in your room. During breaks and in the evening, we could enjoy the break room, watch TV, and “walk the circuit” since the bedrooms were arranged in a semi-circle with offices in the center. The layout enabled fluid movement, as opposed to walking up and down halls with locked doors at either end, which results in rather unsettling and caged pacing.
I do not know the details of the programs at the three hospitals where I trained. I do know that I felt uncomfortable at the two I visited on my last Friday of shadowing. Patients seemed like they were wandering about without much structure. Perhaps it was too close to lunch time, but many of the patients seemed either too symptomatic or unresponsive to participate in structured group activities. I sensed that at any time, someone could go off and chaos would ensue. (Actually, I witnessed chaos at both hospitals in response to decisions made by the Hearing Officer. Decisions that were clearly well-founded.) Needless to say, I didn’t feel particularly safe, nor did I feel welcome. There, I said it. A couple of patients saw us as part of the system that “imprisoned” them. Honestly, I was at a loss. The Hearing Officer does not want to release someone if they might turn around and kill themselves or hurt someone else. The decisions Hearing Officers make are difficult. They must balance the right to personal freedom against the need to protect. When we (those of us living with serious mental illness) are dangerously symptomatic, we cannot think clearly, and we do not always behave in our best interest, or in the best interest of others.
My other volunteer options rest with NAMI Orange County where I interviewed this morning. They have several volunteer opportunities I may enjoy and for which I may be well suited. I could be trained to be a Peer teacher for their Peer-to-Peer Recovery Education Course. I could be trained to be an In Our Own Voice speaker. I could volunteer at special events by sitting at their table, handing out information, and answering questions. I could even volunteer in their office doing clerical work. I would NOT do all of these activities. That would be WAY too much. Both the Peer-to-Peer Recovery Educator and In Our Own Voice public speaking require training, which I greatly appreciate and need. I am impressed with NAMI’s structured training programs.
I NEED structure. Perceived risk of chaos and danger trigger me. I do not need that in my life. In writing this, I’m pretty sure I have made up my mind. I cannot handle being a Hearing Advocate right now. Truth be told, I respect people who are highly motivated to seek treatment and am at a loss about how to best help those with serious mental illnesses (brain disorders) who refuse help, whether due to their symptoms, or because they reject the medical model outright. I do understand not wanting to stay in a hospital in which your personal freedom is severely limited and in which you feel punished rather than healed. I am 100% behind improving our mental health system, including making psychiatric hospitals hospitable, healing and safe for patients, their visitors, their advocates, and their mental health providers.