Michele Edwards

Michele Edwards – breaking down barriers and building trusting relationships

Michele Edwards is a youth support worker with Infant, Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Addiction Service (ICAMHAS) at Whanganui District Health Board (DHB). 

Her role involves supporting the mental health of young people in a less formal way. This can range from accompanying young people to appointments through to transition into environments like the outdoors or public spaces that may be causing anxiety.

“It’s about breaking down barriers for people coming to our service, and that means first building a trusting relationship,” Michele says.

“It can take some time and often starts with me working really closely alongside them. It’s wonderful to see people change and eventually blossom.”

ICAMHAS and SUPP

Michele is very involved with SUPP (‘Stop your procrastinating’ or ‘Support your Peers’) – a co-existing problems (CEP) initiative for 12- to 19-year-olds which is managed by ICAMHAS. SUPP service users often have a lower level of family support so Michele is intensively involved in providing them with support such as gaining access to education, accommodation, employment or a benefit.

“I do as little or as much as is needed to work with SUPP clients to come up with a plan. If they can manage things like keeping appointments I will step back and try not to take over,” Michele says.

The SUPP philosophy is ‘any door is the right door’ so Michele’s role allows her to help with transition to the service which will offer the best support. However, her involvement is only available to young people who are working with an ICAMHAS/SUPP clinician – although there are close links and collaboration with other youth workers and agencies in the community.  If a young person has chosen not to work with ICAMHAS/SUPP, Michele will help them find another service/youth worker who better suits their needs. 

Teamwork

One SUPP clinician she works closely with is registered social worker and CEP Clinician Paul Curran. 

“Young people in SUPP typically live with high social risks, so we often work with people in partnership with other community agencies using a harm reduction model,” Paul says. 

Once a week he and Michele go into rural communities such as Ohakune, Taihape and Raetihi where there are few existing youth services. Sometimes they will visit young people in their homes or at doctors’ surgeries and iwi providers, but much of their time is spent at Ruapehu College.

“We tend to bounce off each other quite nicely,” Michele says. 

“Paul will zone in on the substance use and mental health issues, and I will look at the wider picture. If one of us thinks the other has missed something, we’ll jump right in and say so.”

ICAMHAS Clinical Coordinator Elisabeth Turner agrees Paul and Michele link together well. 

“While Michele supports Paul with programme delivery, Paul also supports Michele with advice and guidance. She is working on achieving registration with the Drug and Alcohol Practitioners Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (Dapaanz) so working with a clinician like Paul is a helpful experience towards that.”

Paul says Michele’s input is invaluable in many ways.

“Michele can offer a more comfortable space for young women to share sensitive matters which can take quite some time to tease out. She hangs in there and maintains contact until they feel ready to disclose details which can lead to engagement with appropriate services. This ability to stay involved, and she’s often the only one, has led to some very positive outcomes.

“Another thing is the scope of our practice. I’m pretty CEP-focused, but the support Michele provides around things like diet, exercise, hobbies, friends, family and sexual health gives a more holistic element to SUPP. This means young people get a much better service, and that’s vital in under-resourced rural areas.”

It’s rewarding work

Michele loves her job and says seeing even the smallest positive change is rewarding.

“The work I do is always collaborative, so it’s not just me, but knowing there are some good things going on for a young person that I’m a part of is pretty cool.”

Elisabeth says Michele’s own experience is a real advantage in dealing with young people. It helps her engage with service users – especially people who might be reluctant to access the service.

“She has a really gentle manner and doesn’t put unrealistic expectations on anyone. She’s good at recognising what a person’s needs are and what pace they need to go at. She’s always the same and that consistency helps.”

Paul says Michele is like the hub around which, everything turns.

“She has an incredible capacity for remembering where we should be and what we should be doing. She also has immense local knowledge and community contacts, and she’s an incredible listener. Essentially, Michele is a key source of informal supervision.”

Both sides of the fence

Eight years ago, Michele and her husband fostered two girls who had been through the ICAMHAS service. She says having been on the other side of the fence really helps her understand how scary it can be – how hard it is to come through those doors for the first time, knowing that your child is facing some problems. 

“Sometimes in that situation a person feels like the blame is on them. That can be hard, and I try to remind clinicians of this. My experience also affects how I relate to families and others who come in. I try to make them feel as welcome and relaxed as possible.”

The right kind of person

As far as Michele knows, Whanganui is the only DHB to have employed a youth support worker. Originally, she was given a 12-month contract, but the position has been made permanent because she proved so valuable. 

“We weren’t sure at first what role she would have, but she’s really grown into the position and made it her own, and now we just can’t imagine what we’d do without her,” Elisabeth says.

She says that in the future the youth support worker role ICAMHAS has established could evolve, and some diversification might be possible.

Michele says she would like to see more support workers generally and for the role to become more valued and respected. 

“We’ve come a long way, but when I started out I felt support workers were looked down on a little. However, I do remember a psychiatrist saying support workers are the ones doing the groundwork every day, and that’s true. It’s a lot of hard work and you have to be the right kind of person to do it.” 

Paul says his 14 years as a qualified social worker have made him a big fan of having support workers around.

“There are great stories of support workers being key to whole practice models. They usually come with an open mind and that’s a positive thing. There are people out there who have a natural affinity with others in need and distress, but who are not able to study for several years. We need those people.”

Elisabeth and Paul both recommend other DHBs make use of support workers but, as Paul says, “the hard part is finding a good one”. 

The future 

Michele has just finished a degree in health science and would like to complete her Masters in Social Work and do more in this sort of role in the future. That said, she has promised her family she will put time aside to be with them for now as she knows study can be very time consuming.