How can someone with these mental health problems be a part of our community?
February 8, 2011 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Mental health/safe space question.

I "work" at a 100% volunteer-run organization that is 2 years old in its current incarnation - so relatively new. We have a volunteer* with mental health problems. He confuses the past with the future and speaks stream-of-consciousness, for instance. He is a well-meaning volunteer, but several of our primary volunteers have been having trouble with him. He pays an inappropriate amount of attention to young ladies who come into our shop - this can be corrected relatively easily by redirecting his attention to a different project, but that takes some effort that some of the primary volunteers aren't interested in dealing with, and nonetheless creates something of a liability.

We aim to have a "safe space" environment, which means that we need to be welcoming both to young ladies, and people with mental health problems, like him. Current discussions appear to be headed toward a ban. I am rather uncomfortable with this, but see where they're coming from. What options do you see for our organization in handling this?

*we don't currently have restrictions on who can volunteer - anyone who shows up and is interested in helping out is welcome.
posted by lover to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Assign him to duties that will limit his interaction with others, like paperwork, etc?
posted by mooselini at 11:32 AM on February 8, 2011

Is there any way that he can be given some time-consuming "important" solitary task?

It might help us to know what kind of organization this is.
posted by mareli at 11:35 AM on February 8, 2011

What kind of work does your organization do? I don't think limiting who can volunteer (or at least enforcing certain rules) is a bad idea. Everyone is welcome, as long as they play nice (i.e. don't harass women, etc).
posted by OLechat at 11:36 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's pretty much a one (large) -room place, with visitors coming in and out all the time. If people see that he's volunteering, they'll assume he can help them out.
posted by lover at 11:37 AM on February 8, 2011

I see why you're conflicted, but I definitely agree with your primary volunteers that he doesn't cut it as a volunteer if he's making young women uncomfortable. The comfort of these women is far more important than giving one man with mental health issues a space where he can interact inappropriately without boundaries.

The key is to be clear and give him boundaries. Maybe you can give him a probationary period where he is allowed to help in the shop, but only if people first ask him for help. Make it clear that he is making others uncomfortable and that he cannot help if he does this. If he tries to help a customer when he hasn't been asked, then his shop privilege is taken away for a month (or forever).
posted by pluot at 11:42 AM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: It's skills-based education in a relatively informal (ie. somewhat anarchical) workspace.

If we were to limit him to not volunteering, how could we make that different from an outright ban? Visitors should probably be held to the same standards as volunteers. Folks who come in regularly are often informally volunteers who help others while working on their own thing.
posted by lover at 11:43 AM on February 8, 2011

Another thought is assigning hours to him when visitors stop by least?
posted by mooselini at 11:43 AM on February 8, 2011

On preview, does this mean that sometimes the young women in question are asking him for help without knowing what they're getting into?

Maybe you can make "I can help you" badges for your other volunteers and not give him one.
posted by pluot at 11:44 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I like pluot's suggestion, and will bring it to the meeting. Other suggestions are still very welcome - the more potential solutions we have, the greater the likelihood that we can maybe find something that works.
posted by lover at 11:45 AM on February 8, 2011

It isn't clear if your organization has some principles of community/volunteer guidelines that volunteers agree to before becoming part of the team. This can include treating each other respectfully, ethically, etc. I think that it helps to set those expectations up front, and have some sort of impersonal guidelines to refer to when engaging in corrective feedback, or even letting someone go.

Banning people without explaining the rules - rules that you want everyone to agreed to - is always going to be difficult for people who don't have the best interpersonal skills, or have different cultural norms, etc. So get a subgroup together, come up with expectations for a respectful community, invite people to contribute and then sign on to it, with clear discussions about why these are important, explain them to every new person and have them agree to abide by them - and enforce them, and you're good to go in the long term. In the short term, this can be a pain in the ass to develop, but it's so worth it in the long term. It's like two months of challenge for 10 years of peace, so if your group is going to be around, it might be worth it to you as well.

Well functioning communities need structure and clear boundaries. Goodwill endeavors sometimes avoid defining these because they aren't that fun to develop, and it seems constrictive. But every volunteer organization I've worked for that doesn't have these underlying principles repeatedly run into situations like this person, and the leaders/majority think the issue is the person, not something that they didn't do. Your group can just ban this guy, and then be in the exact same situation 6 months down the road, when another volunteer starts yelling at people regularly, or doing things that one person thinks is fine, but the collective doesn't. And then the collective gets sucked into 'solving the "Bill" problem, or the "Susan" problem', or whatever, rather than collectively solving whatever cause you are all volunteering towards.

And that there is the road to dysfunctional, crazy-making Town.
posted by anitanita at 11:51 AM on February 8, 2011 [12 favorites]

not sure of how you're structured, or what the laws in your jurisdiction are, etc., but you are likely required to have a space that is free from gender-based harassment (volunteer on volunteer, or volunteer on public) if you are a public accommodation/store. young women should not have to "know what they are getting into" if they're coming to your organization to shop. supporting people with disabilities in terms of employment/volunteer opportunities is beyond important. so is making sure that your other "volunteers" and the public are safe. have clear rules is important, and these can cover what is/is not appropriate behavior, what is harassment (gender-based, disability-based, etc.). perhaps you can chat with other volunteer run organizations in your area to see if they have come up with successful protcols that they are willing to share?
posted by anya32 at 11:53 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was part of such an organization (you aren't an infoshop, bookstore or social center by any chance, are you?). Yeah, that's a tough one.

Over the seven years that I was part of the project, we asked three people to leave. All three were mentally ill men, two from extremely working class backgrounds. I was unhappy with this but saw no other solution given the composition of the project.

1. Our project was fairly loosely run - it wasn't an office setting where everyone had a set task and a physically obvious place to be. So it was difficult to manage problematic interactions with others and it became very obvious very quickly that such management was occurring.

2. Our volunteers were mostly young--some in their teens--and mostly lacked the social skills to redirect the actions of older men. One of the people we asked to leave was physically frightening to some of our younger volunteers, although this was not because of intentional violent actions on his part.

3. We tended to be thinly staffed, so it would usually be only one or two other volunteers plus the problem person.

4. We did not have the time or experience as a project to come up with basically an IEP for our problem volunteers.

What we did afterward was tighten up the standards for becoming a volunteer -- more commitment, fewer screw-ups, being voted in by the group. This didn't help as much as it should, because the group was very reluctant to hurt people by saying no. Basically, the only way to prevent this kind of thing is to have a group which will keep out unacceptable volunteers and which will call out unacceptable behavior. This is very difficult in progressive spaces, at least here in Large Midwestern City.

Have you had a very frank talk with the guy outlining what is not acceptable? This never really worked for us, but it made me feel better about asking people to go. The folks in question weren't in control of themselves enough to change their behavior.

Ultimately, you have to balance the harm to the project against the harm to the person if they're asked to leave. Is the guy transparently mentally ill such that women's interactions with him are "ooh, he was creepy but also unwell!" or are the interactions more like "I feel physically unsafe"? If it's just social discomfort (and I certainly know how uncomfortable that can be) I'd be inclined to try to keep the volunteer on the theory that the volunteer's needs are more important.

You can memail me if you'd like more info on what we tried to do--if only as a cautionary tale.
posted by Frowner at 11:56 AM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

There's no such thing as "mental health problems."

Ok, so mini-vent aside...

Do the same thing you'd do with an employee; develop a plan-to-remedy, with "what to do's" and "what not to do's", and let him know that if he doesn't follow it, you'll have to let him go as a volunteer, which you really don't want to do.

For example, when a young female comes in, he can point her in the right direction if he feels that he can do so without making inappropriate comments, or he can say "Stan will help you, he's right here."

His mental health isn't a reason to absolve him from finding his own solutions any more than it's a reason to punish him for them.
posted by TomMelee at 11:59 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

this can be corrected relatively easily by redirecting his attention to a different project

Have you tried correcting it by telling him immediately, very clearly and plainly and in simple language, what behavior is unacceptable, and that his continuing that behavior will result in his no longer being welcome as a volunteer?

You're sort of speaking in code when you say pays an inappropriate amount of attention - I'm not sure what that means and I'm good at reading this kind of thing. You need to be sure that you are NOT speaking in code to him. Do not redirect him into some paperclip-sorting project and expect him to figure out that he's sorting paperclips instead of helping people because he said an inappropriate thing. He may not have the ability to figure this out. Part of providing a "safe space" for him is to not expect him to do things he cannot do, and to help guide him into acting appropriately.

Say what behaviors need to change. Say precisely what you mean. Say it immediately and clearly when he demonstrates one of these unwanted behaviors. Don't hide what you say in the complicated emotional language that's sometimes used in an attempt to soften the blow in a case like this: "Can you put yourself in her place and imagine how your actions make her feel?" Well, maybe, no he can't.

Instead, you should say "You are following her around too closely. You need to stay this far (hold out hands) away from people you are helping. If you don't do that, here is what the consequence will be: ..." Or, "You have asked her if she needs help three times now. You need to ask each person only once, and if they say no, you need to leave them alone. If you don't follow this rule, here is what the consequence will be: ..."
posted by fritley at 12:06 PM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Oh--I wanted to add that one reason I was uncomfortable with the banning was this: I was never entirely sure that we were accurately separating cultural/subcultural differences from genuine fear/unsafety.

I'm from a more proletarian background than most of our volunteers were, and I felt like one guy got deep-sixed because he was a working class man who'd been in the military and been homeless and had social mannerisms to match--not good with the feelings, always trying to "win" the conversation, very guarded, talked big to impress. He had some mental health problems, yeah, but I felt strongly that we would have tolerated him if he had acted more like us. We tolerated some other bad behavior that was "familiar" in expression.

Ask yourself how your other volunteers act--does anyone have problem behaviors but gets tolerated because they're from a similar background to most of the volunteers?
posted by Frowner at 12:07 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Good advise from everyone here. Speaking from experience running a few volunteer-based programs: people who want to help are not necessarily the people who should be helping. The desire to help and contribute to a program is not an indicator of being able to assist the program and nothing to do with actually being helpful. In fact, some people who want to help may actually prove to be a tremendous impediment and could destroy your program.

As for "inappropriate attention," that doesn't sound like a safe space. You cannot have a "safe space" and keep everyone happy and you cannot include everyone. Sometimes, a choice has to be made in a program to be all-inclusive or to be a safe space. It's a hard decision and an uncomfortable process.

Enjoy it!
posted by fuq at 12:38 PM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yep. There are people, mental health issues or not, that are inappropriate in certain situations. You, as the staff, must let everyone know what your expectations are and if they are not able to follow the rules, they have to go. As a former volunteer coordinator, I would say that sacrificing the one that is not following the rules will only make for a better environment for all around and get the volunteers who are following the rules to not only respect you but also to respect the environment.

Good luck.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:58 PM on February 8, 2011

If there's a Vocational Services in your area that serves the special needs community, you may contact them and perhaps they can help you/him find a volunteer setting that would be more appropriate for him. Many cities have at least a couple agencies like this.
posted by Salamandrous at 1:34 PM on February 8, 2011

You need a way to address inappropriate behavior by volunteers in general, not just this guy--something like: first instance of inappropriate behavior the volunteer gets a warning, second instance the volunteer is given a probation period and additional training, and third instance the volunteer is asked to leave. Communicate your organization's standards of behavior to all of your volunteers.

Although your organization is staffed by volunteers, there's nothing wrong with expecting (and enforcing) adherence to the goals and values of the organization. Give second chances and extra training, but at the end of the day, if someone cannot (or will not) behave appropriately toward the population he's volunteering to serve, he needs to find a different volunteering role.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:43 PM on February 8, 2011

I don't think it's wrong to exclude volunteers who cannot support the mission of the organization--if he makes women uncomfortable and your org is dedicated to the well-being of women, he can't continue being around them. If there's a way he can contribute without coming into contact with clients, that might be a good solution (as long as he doesn't pose any problems for women volunteers). Otherwise, it's fair to say that he can't continue volunteering there.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:09 PM on February 8, 2011

We aim to have a "safe space" environment, which means that we need to be welcoming both to young ladies, and people with mental health problems, like him.

What a nice thought.

So your group wants to provide a place that is comfortable both for young women and for people who behave in ways that make young women feel uncomfortable.

I can't imagine how that would possibly work. I think your organization needs to rethink this idea of being a safe space to every single person. Isn't the whole point of a safe space that people you don't feel safe around aren't there? Accepting everyone into the space makes it a meaningless concept.
posted by yohko at 5:37 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hi lover,

Here are some sample volunteer codes of conduct that might give some ideas.....






But if you just google volunteer code of conduct, you will find heaps of what you're looking for, all lengths and level of detail.

Best of luck!
posted by anitanita at 10:40 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi y'all,

Thanks kindly for all your advice - it was helpful. If you ask me, Frowner's second comment is a great expansion of TomMelee's point that there's no such thing as "mental health problems."

I feel like our organization is afraid to take a 'wait-and-see' attitude - we're talking to him, but he has been banned from the shifts of several lead volunteers before any conversation on this topic had taken place. However, we are definitely working on the advice of anitanita and several others, and developing a set of rights and responsibilities that we can turn to, and expect people to understand and to operate by.

Mostly, through reading this thread (rather than in all the conversation we've been having, maybe because it's such an obvious point), I now understand that no matter who the person is, they'll still have to abide by standards for a safe space.

Thanks again for your advice.
posted by lover at 10:55 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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