By Sarah Law
BELLEVILLE – Mental health patients are only a phone call away from friendship thanks to volunteers such as 86-year-old Maurice Campbell, who has helped the Canadian Mental Health Association of Hastings and Prince Edward for over 14 years.
Campbell is one of four volunteers for the organization’s assertive telephone outreach program. He says he comes in every Friday for a few hours and reaches out to 10-12 people every shift who suffer from mental illness. Patients are referred to the organization by their caseworkers, doctors or others who care for them.
“It just seemed to be something that I’d like doing,” says Campbell, who learned about the position from an ad in the newspaper and decided he was interested in seeing what the organization was all about.
Campbell is the father of two daughters and a son and has six grandchildren. He worked across western Ontario for Canadian Packers, which is now known as Maple Leaf Foods, Inc., for 31 years, and says his career helped him adjust to his volunteer work. He explains how talking to people has come naturally to him because of his experience in sales.
Since maintaining a phone conversation requires a lot of patience and charisma, he admits that “I don’t think this is for everybody.”
After his first day on the job, Campbell confesses he questioned whether he was right for the position.
“It was a little bit of a shock to the system. It takes a while to get used to this clientele,” he says.
Despite his initial self-doubts, 14 years on he has become a tremendous asset to the association, according to executive director Sandie Sidsworth.
“Maurice has been the backbone of training volunteers for the assertive telephone outreach program,” she says. “He has provided care and comfort to literally hundreds of calls during his time with us.”
While Sidsworth has kept a record of his service, Campbell says he didn’t keep track of it.
When first contacting a new person, Campbell says he has to let them open up to him, but this takes time. Since every person has a unique history of mental illness, each case is different, he says.
“I think you have to let the client open up to you. Mind you, they’re not going to do this the first or second call," he says.
He says it helps when volunteers get to know their clients’ interests so they can talk about things they are passionate about. While these volunteers are not medical professionals and cannot provide them with advice, they can recommend them activities and ask about their coping strategies. However, volunteers need to be careful not to come off too strong.
“If possible, let them initiate the conversation,” Campbell says.
The Canadian Mental Health Association’s mission statement says it is to provide mental-health wellness and community integration in the region, through advocacy, education and transitional housing.
Campbell says the organization is one of the major reasons why stigma surrounding mental health in Canada has declined in the last decade.
In the past, nobody knew what mental illness was and did not know what symptoms to look for. Now, people are more educated about mental health and its significance, and so it has become easier to discuss openly, he explains.
“It used to be a thing that nobody would say,” he says, describing it as a taboo subject which was largely misunderstood.
Campbell also says that public figures in the media, particularly in the sports field, have helped spread awareness and have made it easier for people to admit they are suffering. He mentions Clara Hughes, an Olympic cyclist and speed skater from Winnipeg, Man., and praises her work in mental health advocacy. Hughes is the spokesperson for the Bell Let’s Talk mental health campaign and made headlines when she publically broadcasted her past experiences with depression.
As more people break down the barriers and misconceptions surrounding mental illness, Campbell says the stigma will continue to subside.
During his phone calls, Campbell says it is important to make his clients realize it is not their fault they are struggling with mental health problems and that they are not the only ones who are experiencing them.
It is also important to keep in mind that some people are not as receptive to the help as compared to others.
“It depends on the person whether they’re really looking for the help or whether they want it or whether they would classify it as an intrusion in their life,” he explains.
Nonetheless, he remembers one phone call which made him realize the difference mental health volunteers make in people’s lives. He admitted to one woman that he was not sure how well he was getting across to his clients. She responded with reassurance.
“I think that you people are angels that do this because you’re not getting paid and you’re listening to me complain,” she says.
This helped him realize the value of his contributions to the organization.
“I thought to myself, ‘well maybe I am doing something good because if you get a person that’s that happy about what happened, you must be on the right track,’” he says.
Campbell reflected on why he continues to volunteer.
“I enjoy it and I think that as long as other people are enjoying what I do, the people that I phone, that’s all the pay you want for it,” he says.
Seven weeks ago, Campbell underwent a hip replacement surgery and is currently recovering at home. He says he looks forward to when the organization moves to their new location on 250 Sidney St., Unit 59 in May, as he will be ready to continue his service by then.
Campbell encourages others who have a passion for mental health activism to consider volunteering at the Canadian Mental Health Association. There are currently 16 volunteers at the local branch.
“I really think if you can bring a little bit of joy to somebody’s life by just making a call, why would you not do it?” he says.