If someone were to ask you to describe yourself, what would you say?
Would you lead with your profession?
List off your personality traits?
Or mention if you’re married or have a family?
What if you struggled with your mental health, would that be one of the first things you share?
“A person is more than just a mental illness,” Gord Unsworth explained. “Imagine if you had schizophrenia and that became your identity.”
That’s the message Unsworth presented at this year’s L.E.A.D. Training, hosted by Addiction and Mental Health Services (AMHS) – Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington.
L.E.A.D. stands for Lennox and Addington Emergency Ambulance Diversion.
The two day seminar held earlier in March in Selby, featured mental health experts from across the region, sharing recovery models with first responders, emergency response teams and other service providers.
“It’s about coming together with people in the community to work together on a common goal to help those in crisis with their mental health or addiction issues,” said Julie Brooker, a Court Diversion Worker with AMHS in Napanee.
Unsworth is the manager of Providence Care’s Community High Intensity Treatment Team (CHITT) and Dual Diagnosis Consultation Outreach Team (DDCOT).
CHITT provides recovery-oriented treatment, rehabilitation and support services for clients with a serious mental illness, who require a higher level of support in their day to day lives.
DDCOT supports individuals who have a dual diagnosis, such as an intellectual disability or autism, in addition to a diagnosed mental illness or behavioural disorder.
“The message I have isn’t just for healthcare providers. It’s for police, paramedics, even politicians,” Unsworth said.
“We really want to shift the conversation around mental health, and acknowledge a person for who they are, not their diagnosis.”
And one way to do that Unsworth says is to acknowledge and thank people every time they open up and share their stories.
“We’re so much better when we communicate. By saying thank you, you’re not only acknowledging the person, but you’re also truly valuing them. It encourages them to be more descriptive, and I think that will help transform the community for the better.”
Brooke Phillips, a Residential House Supervisor with Lennox and Addington Interval House, says it’s a simple concept adding that human touch, but it can have a major impact.
“Using the medical model that we’ve used for so long, sometimes we get stuck identifying a person by their diagnosis or their behavior at the moment, instead of seeing them as a complete person,” Phillips explained.
“Gord brings to the forefront that everybody is a complete person. They’re somebody’s child, brother or sister, a family member or friend. They play different roles in their life and their illness is a piece of that, but it isn’t the defining factor.”
Phillips adds the strategy could be used in short or long-term settings, and in any environment.
It could also help when it comes to setting goals.
“Sometimes we can be a bit dismissive and say things like ‘that’s not the goals we’re working on right now’, instead of hearing why people have those goals. By truly listening we can help them attain the big picture goals they have for themselves and give them some more autonomy.”
The L.E.A.D. Training also highlights programs and services available in the Napanee area.
“Not everyone is aware of what’s available,” said Shelley Hagerman, a Crisis Worker with AMHS.
“We have a lot of officers that are new to the area. So they get to learn what we have to offer and how we can support them.”
Programs such as Providence Care’s CHITT, which is relatively new to the Napanee area.
“There’s no other team in a rural area like this in Ontario, or even in Canada,” said Unsworth.
“Providence Care is a trailblazer right now, in that we’re providing excellent service to very rural areas, so that people in the area can access what they need.”
And by listening, acknowledging and thanking, Unsworth says a client’s road to recovery may be a little less bumpy, so they can continue to be the person they are and not be defined by their mental illness.