Caring for the mentally ill beyond hospital walls

Bellevue social workers say service requires a heart of love

Monday, April 16, 2018

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With few, but willing hands and an abundance of love, the small team from the Social Work Department at Bellevue Hospital in Kingston celebrated Social Work Month with nearly 700 inpatients and over 300 outpatients in the capital city, during March. This year's theme was 'Social Workers: Leaders, Advocates, Champions'.

Led by Jessica Tyghter-Shaw, senior social worker, representatives of Jamaica Broilers Group (JBG) and The Best Dressed Chicken brand went to the communities of Mountain View, Harbour View, Rollington Town, Rockfort and downtown Kingston on Wednesday, March 14 to deliver care packages door-to-door to outpatients of Bellevue.

Packages included toiletries and non-perishable items donated by Jamaica Biscuit Company, Cals Distributors Limited, Lasco Distributors Limited, Lions Club of Portmore, Food For the Poor, and National Baking Company, and Jamaica Broilers Group which, through its Best Dressed Chicken brand, has participated in the annual event over the past three years.

“Our patients were more than excited and appreciative to get that extra nugget in their bag. So we thank our sponsors for their help each year and those who came on board with us to make this month an extra special one — not just for us, but our patients,” said Alleen Smith-Roberts, medical social worker at Bellevue Hospital.

Social Work Month activities began on Thursday, March 8 with the team from Bellevue visiting Golden Age Home at Vineyard Town, where toiletries and walkers were presented to clients. The following day, inpatients at the hospital received packages donated by corporate Jamaica.

Between March 12 and 13, outpatients from St Thomas, St Catherine, Kingston and St Andrew, were invited to collect their care packages from the hospital, while on March 14, Jamaica Broilers Group made available its coaster bus to assist with special deliveries to those who were unable to make it to the hospital. Broilers, known for its door-to-door distributions in Spring Village and McCook's Pen during Easter and Christmastime, thought it fitting to partner with the social workers to serve in this way.

“At our core we are a poultry company… we believe in Jesus Christ, we believe in His mission, and His mission becomes ours in terms of how we serve our communities. Our partnership with the Bellevue Hospital by going out into the communities has helped us to exemplify that,” declared Danah Cameron, group PR programmes officer at the Jamaica Broilers.

Tyghter-Shaw explained that during the distribution of food and care packages her team does an assessment of the clients to check for signs of relapse in their mental health. In cases where such signs are observed, a team is alerted to that need. She also noted that people who were living in poor conditions and needed to be referred to a welfare agency would be invited to her office for processing.

She added that outside of Social Work Month, the department at Bellevue Hospital supplies packages to outpatients on an ongoing basis, with the assistance of Food For the Poor.

The consensus expressed by team members from the hospital's Social Work Department was that social work is a calling which requires a heart of love and an attitude of service.

“I didn't choose social work, it chose me,” said Smith-Roberts when asked why she chose the profession. She added that she finds great joy in helping people with a mental illness to reconnect with their family.

“I didn't plan to be a social worker. I applied to do law at UWI, but didn't get in because the programme was full, so my teacher at Rusea's High School suggested I study social work for a year then make the switch. I fell in love with the profession and, although being a straight 'A' student, I refused to leave my newfound love. It is a fulfilling profession; one which requires skills and knowledge to assist the vulnerable in society. It is also rewarding especially when you see people being able to function in society and your care made the difference. I have high hopes for this department and its current team of dynamic persons,” said Tyghter-Shaw.

One member of that team is Patricia Wilson, medical social worker at Bellevue.

“Social work is gratifying and fulfilling,” she said. “We do what we have to, to make our clients comfortable. In fact, we sometimes clean the houses of elderly outpatients in preparation for their return home. We do not look for reward. Their expression of gratitude is enough. My wish is that we could do more to help those on the streets with mental illnesses.”

Another member of the team, Annette Francis, said she has been drawn to help those people whom she serves. “I look forward to coming to work because I know our clients need our help. We even get calls outside of office hours. It is a calling for me,” she said.

The social workers also shared their concerns about the stigma associated with mental illness and encouraged Jamaicans to offer support to people in their communities living with mental illness.

“A lot of them are out there and they are being treated in such a manner that they feel compelled to run back to Bellevue, when the hospital doesn't have the space for them. They probably don't need to be hospitalised, but because they are running away from the maltreatment in their communities they come to Bellevue for refuge,” lamented Barbara McKoy, who has 24 years' experience as a social worker at the hospital.

Echoing this sentiment, Smith-Roberts urged communities not to ostracise mental health patients. “No man is an island; the more support that individual has, the better. The propensity to stay well is greater with more support,” she noted.

Employees of Jamaica Broilers said the experience was memorable and touching, noting that although they had served door-to-door in their home parish, St Catherine, there was something special about the care they observed being applied by the social workers.

“We appreciate the sensitivity and kindness with which the social workers serve these members of our society on an ongoing basis… the work they do emulates who Christ is in such a magnificent way. They truly give of themselves. They speak of their patients as if they are speaking of family. They have such a heart; such a warmth towards these people… it is really moving,” said Cameron.

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