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Support volunteers for Emergency Departments

The unique Support Volunteers Initiative in Carlow and Kilkenny is giving people with mental health difficulties much-needed support during their visits to the local Emergency Department.

It can be extremely distressing for patients as they await their Mental Health Assessment and it was from the need to address the problems they face that the volunteer initiative came about.

After two years of planning, the Emergency Department Support Volunteers Initiative was launched in March 2017 at St Luke’s Hospital. The service is offered to patients attending the Emergency Department every Saturday between 8 am and 8pm who require a Mental Health Assessment.

A group of 12 volunteers are trained to sit with and support patients while they await their assessment – chat with and listen to them, make a cup of coffee, or accompany them for a walk etc.

Millie Ryan, who was on the Steering Group, is one of the volunteers who have committed their time to the project. She became involved through her experience with the local mental health group in Kilkenny.

“A family member of mine has used the psychiatric facility in St Luke’s and I became involved with the forum, which is for service users and their family. We often spoke about the difficulties that a trip to the Emergency Department can bring for somebody with mental health problems, especially when they are on their own,” explained Millie.

“It was out of those experiences that we devised the initiative and started planning how to put it into action.”

The Steering Committee leading the initiative was made up of representatives from a number of groups and organisations including Mental Health Ireland, Kilkenny Bereavement Support Group, Teac Tom, the Samaritans, Family Carers Ireland, Advancing Recovery in Ireland, HSE Community Services, Mental Health Services, Department of Psychiatry and the Emergency Department, St Luke’s.

A four-day training programme was devised and delivered specifically for this group of volunteers. It included the Safe Talk Programme, general information on mental health delivered by Mental Health Ireland, Active Listening delivered by the Samaritans, self-care and letting go, and training on the criteria and boundaries of the service. Volunteers also had an induction session in the Emergency Department.

“We haven’t been used that often yet. We do every Saturday and would have two of us on call. If somebody needs us, the triage nurse in the ED will contact us and one of us will come in. It is not an onerous task in any way and it is fantastic that we have an opportunity to support somebody who needs us,” said Millie.

“A long wait in the Emergency Department can be very traumatic for somebody experiencing psychological or psychiatric problems. They could give up and go home or feel like it is just too much for them so it is important that they have a friendly face beside them to help them and just keep them company.”

She explained that there are strict criteria about when they would be called in.

“The triage nurse wouldn’t get us involved if somebody is being aggressive or if they are under the influence. And the staff at St Luke’s have been brilliant. They give us the use of the kitchen or one of the other rooms so that we can chat to the people away from the main waiting area,” she said.

Millie added that she hoped the pilot scheme would get adopted in other hospitals around the country and even be extended to include elderly patients.

“I think it would be great if we had something similar for the elderly who are making hospital trips by themselves,” she said.

Deirdre Dunne, Volunteer Co-Ordinator at St Luke’s, said the initiative had made a ‘huge difference’ to the people who present for Mental Health assessment to the Emergency Department.

“Feedback from patients and staff has been very positive. We cannot underestimate the value that providing this support to people who are in distress can have. The service literally provides a listening ear, a smile, practical support such as making a phone call and a message to our patients that they have done the right thing by seeking help on their road to recovery,” she said.

 Support volunteers for Emergency Departments web two

Photo Caption: Pictured at a recent meeting of the Emergency Department Support Volunteers Forum in St Luke’s General Hospital Carlow-Kilkenny are, seated, Mary Byrne, Mental Health Liaison Nurse for Travellers; Millie Ryan, Volunteer; and Zoe Doheny, Mental Health Liaison Nurse, St Luke’s. Back row: Irene Bergin, Volunteer Co-ordinator, St Luke’s; Angela Hayes, Teach Tom; Patricia Doheny, Volunteer; Fionnuala Brennan, Admissions Supervisor, St Luke’s; Vincent O’Shea, Volunteer; Florence Cullen, Volunteer; and Deirdre Dunne, Volunteer Co-ordinator, St Luke’s.