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Trying to Tackle Mental Health

Jim Chipp

Val Little (left) and Esther Bukholt have introduced a mental health first aid course. Image: Dionne Ward.

Pool staff are well trained to deal with most medical emergencies, but until now few knew how to deal with mental illness episodes.

And though facilities are well designed to cope with physical disabilities, some users are not necessarily of sound mind.

These things added up to discourage mental illness sufferers from using council recreation facilities.

MASH Trust regional recreation and leisure co-ordinator Val Little says patients would like to use council recreation facilities once a week, but, in reality, only do so once a year, on average.

Ms. Little says that information came from mental health service consumers themselves.

One of the first things I did when I was in the role was to set up an advisory group (of patients) and they advised me that recreational facilities were a problem."

Ms. Little approached Wellington City community recreation advisor Esther Bukholt with her concerns and the pair set about providing recreation staff with the same first aid skills for mental illness that they already had for physical ill health.

Recreation staff jumped at the chance, Ms. Bukholt says.

Staff enact a number of scenarios designed by the patient advisory group to help them understand the people they are dealing with.

Staff feedback on the programmes has been positive, she says.

"Whereas before odd behaviour would have made them (staff) want to lock the doors, or shut people out, now they are giving customers a bit more space."

Ms. Bukholt says staff tell her the course has changed the way they work with all customers, particularly the difficult ones.

They are more patient with people, and know when to seek help.

Recreation staff also requested an audit of their facilities from a patient's viewpoint.

Essentially patients want the same choices, but delivered slightly differently, Ms. Bukholt says.

Things that need to be taken into account are:

  • application forms for membership or programmes need to include mental health conditions along with other disability and special needs questions, for patients to disclose, if they choose to
  • some psychiatric medicines may cause blurred vision affecting the ability to read signs
  • physical activity may cause medication to be more rapidly burned, so water should be available
  • motivation and concentration can be reduced, so patients may not necessarily take in instructions the first time.

"A lot of it is really just good thoughtful customer service," Ms Bukholt says.

"Staff are encouraged to notice and interact positively with customers, gradually build up relationships with people."

The programme is in its early stages with 100 people taking the one-day course, but the ultimate aim is 50 percent of staff of every facility trained.

Anyone interested in the course can telephone Ms. Little on 568-5690, or Ms. Bukholt on 801-4144, or email

Reprinted with permission from Capital Community Newspapers Limited.

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