Nikki Bond, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health
What I learnt from volunteering with Citizens Advice
Whilst completing my internship at Money and Mental Health, I have also been volunteering at my local Citizens Advice. I was drawn to this role when I came across some literature by them which simply stated that one of the organisation’s key aims was:
‘to ensure that individuals do not suffer through lack of knowledge of their rights and responsibilities or of the services available to them, or through an inability to express their needs effectively.’
This one sentence succinctly summarised my experience of working with people with mental health problems and encompassed my beliefs about advocacy and empowerment.
When I worked in financial services, the people I supported on a daily basis largely struggled to manage their accounts due to the cognitive impacts of their mental health problems: having difficulties budgeting; remembering payments or incurring charges. The challenge of living each day, and coping with their mental health difficulties, often meant that ensuring they had a sound awareness of their rights was difficult. Volunteering at Citizens Advice afforded me an opportunity to work with people experiencing all kinds of difficulties, and through supporting them to access and understand information, ensure that they were not disadvantaged through a lack of awareness of their rights.
Bags of post
The range of issues people present with are broad, including employment rights, benefit entitlements, sanctions and cuts, housing, consumer issues, debt, difficulties with bailiffs and enforcement action, divorce and child maintenance… to name just a few. Each with a unique set of circumstances and impact on the individual concerned.
People’s difficulties range in complexity too – from the relatively straightforward, to the multi-layered and incredibly complicated. People’s ability to understand their issues and the systems involved also varies greatly. Some people are able to access information and resolve their issues themselves, but come seeking reassurance that they’ve interpreted information accurately. Whereas others arrive with not a clue where to begin, usually with a huge bag of correspondence to wade through.
Regardless of what they come in with, I am always struck by the sense of relief people seem to have in leaving the bureau. They often leave with a whole heap of things they need to do, but armed with a sound knowledge of their rights, they walk away with a renewed sense of confidence and courage in tackling issues.
Current climate and levels of need
Recently, I have been alarmed by the number of people arriving to request food bank vouchers, and am saddened by the high level of need for this service. I am also struck by people’s presentation when seeking the vouchers, like a woman who arrived having had no gas or electricity for several days, having gone without food and holes in her shoes. I am concerned about the impact of such scarcity on, not only people’s physical health, but their emotional wellbeing and mental health too. I am proud of Citizens Advice’s model of service delivery, that we do not simply address the presenting need and issue a food bank voucher, but look at the reasons for this, and offer guidance and support, whether the situation arose as a result of family, accommodation, money or an employment situation, or a combination of many factors.
I am struck too by the kindness and care of individuals; from the father coming in seeking advice about his son’s mental health and lack of benefits, to the friend accompanying another who was too scared to come alone, or the daughter who comes in with her dad to act as translator and ensure he can understand and remember all that he is told.
Hope for the future
Local Citizens Advice are largely reliant on volunteers to deliver their core advice service and I admire the level of commitment and dedication of other volunteers, many of whom have been doing the role for years, and have a wealth of knowledge to share with new volunteers such as myself.
I have worked in this sector for many years, and have witnessed the increased demand on social care services, rising levels of homelessness, unprecedented numbers of people seeking support for their mental health problems, and welfare reform, and am acutely aware of the increased demand that all of this places on services such as Citizens Advice.
I am fortunate to be able to directly support people in my role at Citizens Advice, whilst simultaneously having the opportunity at Money and Mental Health to tackle some of the systemic issues through our social policy work. I continue to feel privileged to have these opportunities, and humbled by people’s willingness to share their experiences, and their continued hope for change in the face of much adversity.
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