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Getting caring help from a mental health course

(l-r) Caroline Lattin-Rawstrone; Pat Wood; carer Maureen Clare

Maureen Clare (on the right in the picture) from Oxford, is a nurse in a community hospital and a parent-carer for her two adult sons, aged 29 and 31, who both have schizophrenia. One of her sons is in hospital, but Maureen still has a role as his carer.

She says: "My husband and I probably spend more time with him than we do with our other son because he doesn’t talk to the staff. I’ve learned to sit and listen to him for a couple of hours.

"It’s difficult, and I go home feeling emotionally drained, guilty and worried. We try to give our son hope. We tell him, 'You’ll get out of here'."

Maureen says she has to be strong so that she can care for her other son. "My other son is isolated because he lives alone in a flat. I have to provide support without taking over his life. I have to talk to all the health professionals and make appointments because he won’t make them himself," Maureen says.

How her local carers centre helps

Maureen is assisted in caring for her two sons by her local carers centre, the Oxford Carers Centre. The centre paid for Maureen and a group of other carers to be trained in ‘mental health first aid’.

This course, run by Restore, a local mental health charity, is based on the principle of physical first aid – teaching people simple techniques to prevent someone with a mental illness crisis getting into harm until specialist services can be reached.

Caroline Lattin-Rawstrone (on the left in the picture) is the information co-ordinator at the independent Oxford Carers Centre. Caroline says the course improves a carer's ability to manage crisis situations, and complements other training offered by the centre. Carers learn not only how to help the other person, but how to cope themselves.

The 12-hour course teaches carers how to recognise and treat the early symptoms of mental health problems, from anxiety (including panic attacks) to depression (including suicidal thoughts) and severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. They learn when to intervene and call for help.

Carers also learn ways of listening without interrupting, and to show the person they care for that they've understood what they said. 

Maureen says: "It gave me the skills to communicate with our son. It also helped me to realise that my husband is mildly depressed, and to deal with that.

"I was able to support my husband properly, and not ignore his depression. Previously, I hadn't been in touch with his emotions. I was able to communicate with him using the skills I had learned on the course. I realise that in the past, I used to say to him, 'Never mind', and may sometimes have made his depression worse."

Mental health first aid courses

Pat Wood (in the middle in the picture) runs the Restore training. She says that mental health first aid focuses on recognising symptoms and preventing them from getting worse.

"Our main aim is to support people when they have to manage a mental health crisis, before they can get appropriate specialist help," Pat says. "The course doesn't make you a doctor, but it helps you during a crisis. It gives people useful tools, such as knowing the right words to say, and knowing where and how much to intervene."

The course tries to improve people's understanding of mental illness, which can be feared and stigmatised by some people. It teaches carers that everyone has ups and downs in their mental health, and that many people with mental illness are undiagnosed and often just getting on with life.

"In the listening skills section, you learn important techniques, such as reflecting on what the person has just said," Pat says. "Usually if someone has a problem we tell them, 'It’ll be alright'. Or we say 'You think you’ve got problems' then tell them about our own issues. But reflecting makes the person you look after feel calmer and helps them to trust you."

So far, a dozen carers have taken the course in Oxford, and more sessions are planned. The centre also has dedicated support workers for parent-carers, Asian carers, and a support team for young carers.

"The centre offers confidential practical and emotional support," says Caroline. "For example, our support workers help with filling in benefit forms, and ensure that carers are in touch with people who can offer a package of care. We also have a befriending scheme in which trained volunteers pair up with a person being looked after.

"If you don’t know where else to go, phone us. We’ll try to help."

Mental health first aid courses will soon be available across England. For more information, visit the Restore website.

Visit the Oxford Carers Centre website for more information on its services. Or use the directory of local carers services to find a service near you.

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Page last reviewed: 19/08/2013

Next review due: 19/08/2015

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Media last reviewed: 11/06/2014

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