In a recent blog post, Mark Vander Vennen of Shalem Mental Health Network, has some good words to say about Green Wood's approach to community.
08 Jul 2015
The “Helping” Profession
Author: Mark Vander Vennen
For me, two remarkable events happened last week. The first was the publication in the Globe and Mail of an article by Preston Manning entitled “How Ernestine Showed Me The Road to Reconciliation.”
In the article, in which he recommends implementation of the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Manning tells the story of his relationship with a First Nations/Metis/Inuit friend named Ernestine.
Ernestine is a survivor of a residential school which essentially stripped her of her culture, language and family. She became mired in a pit of abuse and addiction, then traveled to Edmonton, where she received services, without real success, from any number of professional agencies for seven years. After that, Manning tells a quintessential “WrapAround” story, which includes him hiring her as a consultant based on her strengths. Eventually, thanks to her efforts, she gained meaningful, valued, full employment.
But that is only part of the story. Manning wanted to know why the “maze of agencies ostensibly designed to help Ernestine” had not done so. He found that sometimes the “helping systems” delivered certain services effectively,” but more often than not [they] failed to provide guidance at critical times, or to offer encouragement, incentive, and the means of securing self-sustaining employment.”
That may not be surprising, but what is surprising—and this gets to the heart of WrapAround—is what did help:
The people who actually helped Ernestine during this period were usually individuals she would not have met had she not been “in the system.” But—and this is most relevant to implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—in order to truly help Ernestine, these individuals most often had to “step outside the box” of their prescribed professional and bureaucratic roles in order to help her, sometimes in violation of the system’s rules.
This was the case, for example, …with two social workers who treated Ernestine as a friend rather than a client, meeting with her, against regulations, “after hours.”
The second event involved the Greenwood Coalition in Port Hope, Ontario. My colleague Jane Ashmore, Coordinator of WrapAround Northumberland, and I gave a workshop about WrapAround at a Greenwood “Community 101” session. About 40 people from all walks of life were there, and they were an extraordinary group.
The Greenwood Coalition was formed nine years ago by community people who wanted to somehow be involved in changing the life-circumstances of a number of Port Hope residents who struggled with addiction, abuse and insecure housing, sometimes for decades. But what is unique about them is that they intentionally did not introduce a “program.” They were not there to “help.” They were there simply to share a meal together once a week and listen, perhaps even do nothing more than that.
The listening has gone on for several years. They are now truly a community, and new people from all walks of life keep coming around. Along the way, people’s life circumstances have changed, sometimes dramatically. But that has been a by-product of real community, not the result of a program delivered and services received.
All of that has me thinking about the “helping” system and the desire to “help” people. When our aim is to “help” people, we end up with services and a service system like what Ernestine experienced. But when we want to risk loving others, and being loved by them, when we seek to connect, to open ourselves up to being affected by others and to be transparent, then we create community. And isn’t community what we all hunger for? The success of the Greenwood Coalition and the conviction of the people there would suggest so.
But let’s not pretend that this is easy for those of us who are professionals in the mental health system, or gloss over the challenges. Shunting aside Ernestine’s experience or its lessons would simply be unethical. When is it appropriate to “violate the system’s rules,” to dispense with the profession’s strict adherence to “boundaries,” in order to connect? How might we think of a “differential” approach, observing when professional boundaries are appropriate, and when they are not? What types of boundaries are there?
For truly effective community-based mental health practice to occur, we as professionals need to learn how to embed ourselves in communities, and that embedding is precisely about this question.
Dare I say it: sometimes maintaining professional boundaries of a certain type makes for very poor, even “oppressive” mental health practice. At other times, maintaining those boundaries is critical to sound clinical practice.
How do we make sense of this? What do you think? What would a “differential” approach look like? I’d love your wisdom and feedback.
Find the article here.