Tom works on the Triage and Support Line at Norfolk and Waveney Mind’s REST hub in Churchman House, Norwich. At the age of 22 he is just starting out in his career, and has been thrilled to find a job that makes the most of his natural instinct to help people who are in difficulty.
“I have never worked professionally in mental health, but I’ve always been a caregiver for my friends and family,” he says. “I’ve been the one that would call people at two o’clock in the morning if they’ve put something on social media that suggests they’re not doing well, saying: ‘Talk to me, come and lay it on me’, that sort of thing. And that progressed, during lockdown, into a quite lengthy conversation with a friend of mine where I managed to help him through a suicidal period. He messaged me the next morning and said: ‘Have you ever thought about being a therapist?’”
Tom started looking into options available for someone without an academic background in this field – as he puts it, he thought: “What can I do that’s in the mental health area that doesn’t require me to have a doctorate in psychology or anything like that?” After a while, he heard that Norfolk and Waveney Mind were recruiting. Five months into the role, he finds that it varies as much as the people who require the triage team’s help, as each has his or her own story, but the days have a typical pattern.
He starts work at 9am and one of the first tasks is to look at the triage queue. They make a risk assessment for each referral and direct people towards their nearest REST hub – it could be Norwich, Aylsham, King’s Lynn or Great Yarmouth. They tell the hub whether the service user needs one-to-one help or intends to use the evening sanctuary, and will look into the reasons given for the referral.
“Normally this includes a history of their mental health, what’s going on in their lives, why they’re having a bad time. We will always ask if there is any substance abuse, or any kind of addiction. It could be gambling, it could be drugs, it could be alcohol. For any form of self-harm, we have a traffic-light system. Green is for those at no immediate risk of harm. They could be someone who is just needing support, maybe having anxiety or depression.
“Amber tends to be people who have self-harmed in some way, whether it’s drug abuse or alcohol abuse, or who have been abused by other people, either physically, mentally, emotionally or financially.
“Red is a rare occasion where it is someone whose needs are too complex for our service and require specialist support, such as someone with a psychosis.” In such cases people are referred to the relevant services.
There are many things that Tom enjoys about the role, but above all it is seeing people make progress during their time receiving support from Norfolk and Waveney Mind. When they first access the service Tom will give them a welcome call, which often lasts around an hour.
“This is our way of explaining the service verbally to this person,” he says. “Some of them will get upset, which is perfectly fine. They realise: ‘Oh, this person cares about me, wants to help me out and understands where I’m coming from.’ Because all the people that work on the triage and support line have our own mental health problems. We all have our own experiences of dealing with things. And we all have our own experiences of helping other people.”
After the initial call and assessment, subsequent calls usually last around 30 minutes, although they are always extended if there is a need, for instance if someone is upset or in a crisis situation. “Some of the service users have been with us for years,” he explains. “Sometimes we’ll have a call with them and they give you an update and say during the previous call they were crying their eyes out the entire time and everything was going bad, and now they’ll say: ‘I’m doing well. I’m doing better. I’ve started to focus and take control of things myself.’ Instead of going straight to thinking they need to call the support line, they’re thinking: ‘I need to voluntarily try and control this myself instead of relying on others to help me out with it.’
“It’s amazing when we get those calls, because it really gives you that lift.”
Although working for the Triage and Support Line is a challenging role that routinely entails working with people in crisis, it is one that Tom is finding brings great satisfaction.
“I’ve been in a situation before when I was younger of feeling helpless and feeling like no one’s there to help me,” he says, “so it feels good now to know I can help someone. And even I personally can’t help them, I can signpost them to a different service that will be able to help them better.
“That still gives me that little bubbly feeling in your stomach where you think: ‘I’ve done a good job helping that person.’”
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