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Philippa Cole is a support worker with the Navigation service run by Pathways in Wellington. ‘Navigators’ stand side-by-side with people experiencing mental health problems, helping them identify goals they want to achieve in all aspects of their lives. These can involve their mental health, physical health, housing, education, friends, family, quality of life and more, but Philippa says supporting them to take part in their communities is a real priority.
“Many people I support can feel quite isolated, so my role is to build a trusting relationship and work with them to establish goals and move through the steps they need to take to achieve them.”
A lot of the time this means connecting them with other specific services in the community such as organisations providing work training, housing facilities or physical health support, but it can also mean supporting them go to places like churches or craft groups.
The service is mobile so Philippa does a lot of driving. She can have up to a dozen people in her caseload, most of whom have been referred by community mental health teams. Some also have problems with addiction.
Pathways has a home-based service too, and Philippa worked there until recently, supporting people with goals around things like meal planning, shopping, budgeting and exercise. The Navigation service is focused more on supporting people to connect with the community as part of their recovery.
She absolutely loves the work.
“The people I support have such a variety of goals and challenges so every day is different, but you just have to roll with how things go. That’s what navigation is all about and it’s exciting.
“People can achieve some really amazing things and I find that so inspiring. Little things you do can help make a big difference, but even the small achievements are significant. When people make progress, or accomplish another step, I feel great for them.”
Philippa and her colleagues share success stories and together they find that a real source of mutual encouragement and support. She also enjoys talking with her friends and acquaintances about being a mental health support worker because this can reduce stigma and discrimination through people better understanding mental health.
Philippa has been a chef for most of her working life and she’s also had her own catering business. Looking for a change, she completed a degree in social policy and media studies before applying for work at Pathways. She says she finds both subjects relevant to what she does now.
“Social policy is the study of human wellbeing and how important it is to have good mental and physical health, a good job and income, education and housing. But there are also the intangibles like love, security and safety, acceptance and belonging.
“It also helps me understand how policy around social services impacts on people and what people really need. Often that’s just someone to listen to them about what they want to do because, so many people have simply been told all their lives what they should do.”
The communications aspect of her media studies is also helpful to Philippa, especially as she is hearing-impaired. She has to use all sorts of skills beyond just listening to communicate, which is partly why she enjoys the one-on-one nature of her work. While it’s a challenge, she sees it as a real advantage in connecting with people.
“Being hearing-impaired has helped me understand social anxiety to some extent, and that people are not their mental health issue any more than I am my hearing impairment. That’s the way I approach my work.”
Philippa says she tries to live her values, which means she is very respectful of anyone she encounters. She encourages communication and likes to see everyone having a voice. At work she enjoys being the safety and wellbeing champion and she has an informal mentoring role with other staff.
“Every person has knowledge and we can learn from them. I’m learning every day. If you take this approach your mind opens up all the time and that’s really good. Emotional and physical safety have always been important to me so I like getting my colleagues thinking and raising issues that can be addressed from the bottom up.”
In terms of the future, Philippa believes support work needs a much higher profile and to be acknowledged and valued more as a career path.
“Like teachers we are helping people with formative things in their lives even though they may be in their 40s or 50s. We build relationships and teach people skills. We mediate, listen and validate and that takes a lot of hard work and expertise, but it is also incredibly rewarding.”