“I feel like everyone’s out to get me. I don’t feel safe and I don’t know what to do.”

Via the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) Information Service’s webchat, Ana responds...

“I’m sorry to hear that. What supports do you have in place? Are you linked to your community mental health team?”

She offers to make the phone call for the distressed woman.

“I felt like it was going to be a crisis situation, where I would have to call the police or the crisis team. She had made her appointment, but it wasn’t until later that day... I waited while she called to get an emergency appointment,” Ana says.

“I then sent her a couple of resources to get her through the wait. It didn’t escalate to crisis... The conversation that started out in such a fraught way ended with a love heart emoji and heartfelt thanks.”

The scenario above is typical, Ana says, and the overwhelming majority of feedback from people who use the service is positive and often effusive.

Ana, Kim and Jono, from the MHF’s information service, take calls, emails and live chat questions from the general public, 9am–4.30pm Monday to Friday. They do this as they all work on other information projects for the MHF.

Collectively, the three have had nearly two decades on the job – and, while it is a satisfying helping people in need, it can also be tough.

A totally unique offering

MHF Director of Engagement Paula Taylor says the information service is an invaluable part of the mental health landscape. She says it’s the one truly national service of its kind that can direct Kiwis affected by the entire gamut of mental health issues to the right place at the right time, or send the right information, no matter where they come from.

“The mental health system can be difficult to navigate. With 20 DHBs and hundreds of service providers, each catering to the specific needs of their communities, the service you get in New Plymouth is different from the service you get in Napier,” she says.

Another factor that makes the information service unique is that the person calling on behalf of someone else who is ill is asked about their mental wellbeing, too.

“People often phone about their loved one, and we always ask, ‘but how are you, are you ok?’. That surprises people sometimes because they’ve been so busy worrying and caring for someone else,” Paula says.

“We are most definitely not a counselling service and we are not a service provider, that means we don’t provide treatment options for people with mental illness. But we can point you in the right direction to find the help you need. We are leaders in mental health information. We send out more than 100,000 free information leaflets every year, you can find them in waiting rooms in hospitals, GP clinics, physiotherapy, nutrition, occupational therapy providers and more. You can also find them on our website.”

A high-performing, small team

Today the office is full. Even when all the information specialists are in the building, it amounts to just three-chairs full. Officially that’s just 2.5 full-time equivalent positions dealing with more than 3000 inquiries every year. The service has seen a 72% surge in inquiries since launching the anonymous and confidential webchat in 2014.

Wednesday heralds the weekly team meeting, the popular E-Bulletin compiled by Kim is published today and it’s one of the few chances the team gets to debrief and keep each other up-to-date on various projects, such as creating the annual Mental Health Awareness Week toolkit.

“But a person in distress is number one. We drop everything for that person,” Kim says.

Multi-tasking to the max

The morning starts with a media request. The team scrambles to gather up-to-date data on perinatal distress for the MHF’s communications department. Then a student calls in to learn more about advocacy and bullying.

Ana receives an email from a young man experiencing schizophrenia, but he’s too scared to tell someone because he thinks he will get locked up and put on medication.

“For other people, it’s about encouraging them to see a counsellor and explaining what counsellors do, what typically happens in an appointment. We encourage people to get help and support them to do that,” Ana explains.

Kim enjoys finding the right information for the right occasion.

“I love joining the dots,” she says.

Kim recalls an email from a few days ago when she couldn’t lay her hands on what she needed about psychosis. But during her busy day, she found a new resource and emailed it through.

It works like that sometimes, she says; if she can’t find something for someone straight away, she’ll keep searching until she finds something that suits.

“And people really appreciate that, we get so much positive feedback.”

Listening and being there

But for Kim, some days are bittersweet.

“You always wonder if you did enough. Sometimes people’s needs are so complex it’s hard to know which service will be best for them.”

Jono feels the same way and he has personal experience of mental health services.

“I get that it’s difficult to talk to health professionals sometimes. Sometimes, you have to tell your story over and over again, which can be exhausting.

“I still experience depression and anxiety, but I have strategies to manage that now,” he says. And it’s important to him that others do, too.

Jono’s experience really grounds him when dealing with others in mental distress, like today when he receives a phone call from a worried parent who’s at her wit’s end because her child is beginning self-harming behaviour.

“I can say, ‘I don’t know exactly what you are going through, but I know the system’ and I can connect people. Google is a minefield when it comes to mental health information, with some of it being really dodgy – we help them through that, too.”

Supporting the supporters

Jono’s just finished relaying this information when one of his colleagues comes back into the office after a wee break. She’s quiet. Jono shoots her a look, “You ok?” he asks.

“Sure, I just needed a bit of fresh air. That was a tough one.”

It’s been a tricky day for all of them – Ana, Kim and Jono have helped every single person they have engaged with today by working together and making sure they support each other, and that’s something really quite special.

The MHF Information Service helps thousands of Kiwis each year. But, we are a charity and we need your help to keep our service running. Please consider making a donation and learn about other ways you can help, by visiting our website’s Get Involved pages.

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