I’ve volunteered and worked in the non-profit sector for five years now: as a ChildLine counsellor, a mental health support worker, a women’s group volunteer, a charity trustee and currently as a Charityworks graduate.
My mental health condition undoubtedly led me to working in the non-profit sector. I was fairly young when I began to experience mental health problems so I don’t really remember if I had different ambitions beforehand but I can’t imagine working in any other sector now.
From the ages of 16 to 21 I had an eating disorder. I suffered with bulimia, depression and more than a few suicidal thoughts for those five years. I sought help on several occasions through my GP and the NHS mental health services but unfortunately I only encountered long waiting lists and closed doors because I was not thin enough to be helped. In the end I got financial help from my very supportive parents to see a counsellor; this experience was extraordinarily difficult and challenging. As I was a teenager when I became ill, I wasn’t sure what the adult I wanted to be was like. It often felt like I was rebuilding myself from scratch during my year of counselling, but ultimately it helped and despite some tough relapses I recovered.
I know I was incredibly lucky to get this support: many people, if not most people, do not. There were some other factors that led me to start volunteering for ChildLine however the main one was exactly that; I feel very strongly that everyone, no matter their privilege or how much in need of intervention they are deemed to be by a medicalised model of mental health, should have access to support.
One of my first experiences of the charity sector was as a volunteer counsellor with ChildLine at their base in Glasgow, which really cemented my desire to work in this sector. This is owed to the fact that ChildLine give a huge amount of training, time and support to their volunteers; consistency and empathy figure high in their practice and this, in turn, serves the young people that use the service. I have been lucky enough in my current role with the NSPCC to research and write a report on the 30 years of ChildLine, so I know that this remarkable commitment to the listening and empathy within the service, the young people that use it and its volunteers have been there for three decades and will continue for many more. If anything, all this is to say it set me up with wildly high expectations of the support that would be within the rest of the charity sector.
Support work was my first job after university and since fully recovering from my eating disorder. During my three years of support work I was mainly struck by the lack of adequate services that are available for people with mental health problems. As front line workers it often felt like we were firefighting through staff shortage, funding cuts and ever changing measurements of the service that ultimately did not serve the people using it. Staff working in the mental health field are under a huge amount of pressure to do a lot with very little; I have often seen this affecting the mental health of the staff, and impacting on them to the point that they have to leave their particular service or the profession altogether.
I long to see the same level of training and support afforded to volunteers at ChildLine given to front line workers in other services. It is clear to me that if you have a workforce that feels supported then the people that they are supporting will receive an infinitely better service. I am still very committed to working in the charity sector and really want to use both the examples of bad and good practice that I have seen as well as my own experiences of mental health to help build organisations that have tangible impact and make social change a reality.