Broadening access to Independent Mental Health Advocates

Support each other

The statutory role of the Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA)  grew from the 2007 amendments of the Mental Health Act in England and Wales (with a start date of 2009).  IMHAs have particular status in terms of rights to information and access that other advocates may not have within Mental Health services.  Currently commissioned by PCTS, from 2013, Local Authorities will take over commissioning of IMHA services and the right and access to good services is intended to be a safeguard within compulsory mental health services.

Last week, Community Care reported on a study conducted at the University of Central Lancashire about the use and understanding about the use of Independent Mental Health Advocates (IMHAs)  among Mental Health Professionals in England. The study has (not, I suspect, coincidently) come at a good time for the change in commissioning arrangements and a look at where things are and where they should be going.

The article itself draws attention to the conclusions that

Some professionals saw advocacy services “as challenging, even irritating and inappropriate”, the research found. One professional told researchers advocates were “amateurs meddling” and a “bloody nuisance”. Others, particularly approved mental health professionals (AMHPs), supported advocacy “but had little or no direct experience” of service users using it.

As a Mental Health Professional (and AMHP) who has had some experience of uses and referring to IMHAs, I was disappointed by this initially. Particularly the terms with which advocates were mentioned. ‘Nuisance?’, I hope so. ‘Meddling?’ well, why on earth not? Surely being a nuisance to professionals and meddling is exactly what a decent advocate should be doing – however I would find the distinction between so-called ‘mental health professionals’ and ‘amateurs’ as advocates offensive and an indication of scant respect. Respect at every level in mental health services, social services and health services has to exist.

Community Care in a blogpost have put together some of the quotes pulled from the report by social workers and AMHPs in relation to advocates which makes interesting reading alone.

My experiences have been mixed to be brutally honest. Working predominantly with people with cognitive impairments which are significant and may not be able to instruct an advocate, I’ve found our IMHAs who have come from a mental  health advocacy background, have been less than understanding of the need for non-instructed advocacy skills. I have been told following a referral I made, that they would not work with ‘Mr Brown’ because he has an advanced dementia and they were only able to do what he asked as his advocate.

I felt some of the attitudes I’ve seen by a couple of our IMHAs towards older adults with cognitive impairments have been less than positive – and I do feel quite protective towards my client group and want to ensure equal access. If only, I have thought to myself on many occasions, our IMCAs (Independent Mental Capacity Advocates) were also our IMHAs (I can’t praise our IMCAs highly enough – even (or perhaps especially) – when we disagree!).

I am always (in a nice way, of course) a little jealous of the advocates I work with. I think their job has a lot more credence than mine in some terms because while I can advocate for my clients to a point, there’s a point at which I am a part of the oppressive systems that need to be advocated against.

I understand that and respect it. I’d certainly not see advocates as any less ‘professional’ than other members of the team I work in. There has to be a distance though – which doesn’t need to stop us being friendly, personable and pleasant to each other – but does demand that sometimes we will be coming from different angles. That’s important to protect the rights of those being advocated for.

The report itself can be read here.  It explains the context of. It explains that access to an IMHA service which should be offered to everyone who is subject to a detention over 72 hours or a Community Treatment Order/Guardianship – is sparse which particular under-representation in the following areas

There was a strong consensus that those who need the IMHA service the most,access it the least. Specific groups of people that may be under-served by IMHA
services are:
 People from BME communities
 People with learning disabilities
 Older people, with dementia
 People who are hearing impaired or deaf
 Children and young people
 People on CTOs
 People placed out of area

And the issues which have coloured my own personal experiences of using IMHAs was mentioned in the report

The development of IMHA services is based on a model of instructed advocacy provided by mainstream advocacy providers. This may inadvertently disadvantage qualifying patients who have specific needs including people from BME communities, older people, children and young people and those with sensory impairments ..

Furthermore

There was little evidence of commissioning based on needs assessment and equality impact assessment and there was evidence in the case study sites that specific needs had not been considered. In particular, gaps were evident in relation to people from BME communities, people with learning difficulties, older people, children and young people. Further, it was evident that generally service users, particularly qualifying patients, were not being directly involved in the commissioning process or in
monitoring contracts.

So it would be unfair of me to lay the blame at the lack of capabilities of particular advocates and more on the commissioning process which sees ‘Mental Health Patient’ as a block group of people with similar needs and commissions accordingly.

The report makes a number of useful recommendations and is a good read for anyone involved and engaged in the provision of mental health services in England and Wales, whether as a professional, user, advocate, carer or commissioner.

The role of the advocate was strengthened by legislation and it is important that the benefits are not lost. I have seen such incredibly useful work done by advocacy services locally that my main gripe is that there should be an equality of access and opportunity for all who are treated compulsorily by mental health services in society.

I want more ‘nuisances’. I want more ‘irritants’. I want more challenges.

That’s what an advocacy service should be about.

pic by sparkypics at Flickr

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2 Responses to “Broadening access to Independent Mental Health Advocates”

  1. The ‘Mr Brown’ case of advocates saying they can only do (and must do) what they are instructed to do by the patient is a good example of why my wife stopped being a Mind advocate and threw in her lot with the Care Forum instead. As she says, the last thing she wants when ill is for an advocate to take what she says literally, leaving “another fine mess” [Oliver Hardy] for her and me to sort out afterwards. And well-meaning MHA officers who automatically arrange a tribunal to appeal against a Section 2 aren’t necessarily helping either. On another thread, I’ve already criticised another organisation for making one kind of supposition; now we have another sort. Let’s all stop supposing and use seme common sense and a few skills, as you quite rightly say. Otherwise, the advocate could turn out to be a fumbling amateur doing more harm than good.

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