For a number of years now I have been trying to get voluntary advocacy work. This is because I eventually want to retrain as an Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA) and need experience of advocacy work to be able to go down this route. I’ve tried numerous charities over the years and have had the following issues – no funding for any roles, no funding due to me not being in the right geographical area, repeatedly not gotten back to me, etc. I’ve found it very frustrating especially because as a qualified lawyer, someone with experience of welfare and housing through work at the Citizens Advice Bureau and a person of lived experience of mental illness (including compulsory hospitalisations) I reckon I would be a good candidate for an IMHA role. However, recently I contacted an advocacy organisation in Preston regarding voluntary work and they wanted to meet me. I thought that at last my persistence was going to pay off. This afternoon I received a reference request form from the volunteer coordinator via email. The problem? The meeting I had with her on Monday left an especially bitter taste in my mouth.
So why did this meeting leave such a bitter taste in my mouth? Well, before we got to questions regarding the role the volunteer coordinator, L asked me a barrage of questions including:
- What are you doing now? To which I answered I was currently out of work due to illness, which led to:
- What’s your diagnosis?
- How does it affect you?
- What symptoms do you get?
- When were you last in hospital?
- Have you been ill since then?
- How do I know you’ll turn up to an arranged appointment?
I was stunned. I am ashamed to admit it that I attempted to answer these questions, albeit extremely vaguely. I know that these sorts are questions are wrong from my previous experiences in work with HR/managers when unable to work due to illness. In my last job at Rochdale CAB, for example, when I had an absence and had a back to work meeting I was asked how I was, if there was anything about work that was contributing to me becoming unwell, is there anything that can be changed at work (eg hours or days of work) that would help me stay well etc. Not details of my conditions. At interview with them I felt comfortable to explain to them that I had been out of work due to my mental health and they saw no reason to probe further. That’s how it’s supposed to be done and also in line with my experiences when I worked in a law firm. It’s left me wondering how they deal with people in general at the organisation and whether it is a suitable place for me to be volunteering.
As well as the intrusive questioning I have a further issue. The advocacy role at the organisation is for benefits assessments (not the appeals phase). I’m not sure I can cope with the fear of being in such a situation. When I explained that I had never been to a face to face assessment for benefits, L even remarked flippantly “You will soon” with regards to the transfer from DLA to PIP.
So on the one hand I finally have the opportunity to gain advocacy experience but on the other hand is the bitter taste. I have emailed another advocacy organisation in the region and it deals with mental health and so I hope to hear from them. But if I don’t or it is a negative answer, what do I do? Should I go ahead with the benefits assessment advocacy role or not?