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Sally's story - a student OT's view of the GMHF pilot

Salford University student OT Sally Tavner recently joined up with our partners at Riverside to get a better insight to the work of the pilot. Here's a blog about her experiences with our GMHF Heroes.

Before coming to Riverside as an occupational therapy student, I thought I had it cracked,

regularly giving money to a homeless- based charity, donating shoe boxes at Christmas to local appeals and following the media trail that Andy Burnham blazes around tackling the growing crisis of homelessness.

When the opportunity arose in my degree studies to have a placement in a service where occupational therapy (OT) is not traditionally-based, I jumped at the chance. I thought I would be able to develop the communication skills I had built up in previous settings and gain more experience of mental health issues.

I was based in an experienced team of Housing First officers in Zone A at Plymouth Grove, who had a varied background in their previous roles from ex-probation officer Steve McKeown, to accomplished admin officer Lisan Bourgonje and all roles in between. What I quickly learned from them was to expected the unexpected and to not be surprised when that unexpected happened!

The placement was a six-week snapshot of the service, but the team were more than willing to share their experiences in the role and invite me and my fellow student therapist to shadow them in all aspects of their role.

At the time, I particularly remember pounding the streets with Megan Williams and looking for a person on her caseload - certainly not what I was used to when I worked in a ward in previous placements. In that role, if someone wasn’t in their bed, they were either in the visitors’ room or the bathroom!

My supervisors, Tim Lavender and Sarah Kendall, signposted us to other contacts and services which we had an interest in – Jade Elliott, the Greater Manchester Mental Health Dual Diagnosis Practitioner, Specialist Support Worker Lennie Kinsella (pictured with me above) at the Street Engagement Hub and Kath Meighan at the Gransmoor ABEN centre where we got a rounded view of all the facets involved in supporting people who are homeless.

At first, I couldn’t see how Occupational Therapy could enhance the service as it seemed as though all bases were covered.

But, about halfway through the placement, my peer and I observed that the Housing First staff at Riverside like Glyn Walsh were offering practical support and guidance, assisting tenancy management and dealing with crisis, and the role of OT was perhaps with the people who were more settled, but needed a nudge into the next stage of their journey.

We were able to assess them using standardised tools to measure their interests prior to life on the streets and level of engagement to then work with them to explore new roles and activities that gave them meaning and purpose. The therapy being was how their time was occupied.

Our interventions focused on keeping hands busy and minds active as ways to minimise tipping back into the temptation of getting involved in harmful behaviours. Introducing them to new networks with more positive influences as an alternative to meeting up with mates who were still drawing them back to the streets for the social scene, what OTs call ‘dark occupations’.

One of the biggest challenges I encountered during the placement was dealing with my own ego.

Having planned a session as a ‘green behind the ears’ student and keen to deliver it, I would arrive at a property and the tenant was out or refused entry. I asked myself how they could possibly pass up such a perfectly planned and prepared session?!

Seasoned homeless support worker, Simon Partington, guided me on this from his experiences prior to being a Housing First worker and since the pilot started in 2019.

He advised me to strip back my expectations and celebrate the small wins, teaching me that to proceed, I would have to relinquish control. The reminder of it not being about me was a real leveller, which no amount of previous experience or class-based training in advanced communication skills could have prepared me for!

Working with Simon gave me context on the project which helped to form my opinion of how valuable the input is from staff like him at Riverside and the Housing First pilot as a whole.

Occupational Therapy is built on the philosophy of person-centred care and shares some of the principles of Housing First about giving people choice and control and focusing on their strengths goals and aspirations.

The piece of advice that I was given by Joe Molloy and MASH worker Samantha Jones was to keep turning up.

This builds trust and shows someone that no matter what they throw at you, you’re gonna be there again in a few days’ time like nothing ever happened!

This is sadly an area which NHS budgets don’t generally stretch too.

Failing to attend an appointment costs money and so people who consistently fail to make appointments are denied treatment, so people are left feeling let down and mistrusting of the system.

This non-traditional setting has opened my eyes to the real meaning of trust and perseverance and wherever I am posted in my future career, I will take with me the lesson that trust is earned and not a right.


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