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Training – Not always the full answer

2nd June 2016 | Categories: Mental Capacity Act , Mental Health

The Centre for Mental Health have recently published a report on consultation with a range of interested parties into mental health care for people in the criminal justice system. One of the themes of the report is about training – or lack of it – for prison officers, police and probation staff, in mental health awareness. It got me thinking about how mental health awareness training can best work. Sometimes training can be seen as the whole answer to a problem, when really it needs a lot more to back it up. The report is available at: https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk

So let’s examine some of the bad – and good – experiences of mental health awareness training in the criminal justice sector, and then see if this can provide pointers to best use of training.

Poor attendance

The report said there were many examples of mental health awareness training for prison based staff being poorly attended. A lot of trainers have had that experience. Why does it happen? It may be the people who we really need the training aren’t there. It’s the people who are interested and aware who attend. There are other organisational pressures that mean staff give training less priority. It’s not necessarily the staff just voting with their feet. Another quote from the report was “…staff just can’t be released to attend training…” So the organisation, or at least some managers aren’t giving it priority. It’s a bit like supervision. A better trained and supervised workforce would be better equipped and effective but they can’t get these things because the workforce is so pressured. It becomes a vicious circle.

Learning not teaching

The environment has to be right for learning. In their book Effective Staff Training in Social Care Jan Howarth and Tony Morrison (1999) quote the joke of the man who said he taught his dog to whistle. No-one has ever heard the dog whistle. The dog owner replies, I never said he learnt! One of the respondents in the report said “…to be honest I am not sure what good awareness training would be at the moment… there are so few staff and much less prisoner officer interaction than in the past…” In other words the environment is not right for effective learning. That groundwork must be done first.

Messages from the top

One of the comments from prison staff shows the importance of staff leadership in promoting training – “…it’s down to the governor…..if they are interested then things tend to be better” If there isn’t commitment to the topic at the highest levels of the organisation then it is unlikely that staff will be given support to attend training, and more importantly make use of it in their day- to-day work. This leads onto the issue of what kind of priority managers give to training- clearly the highest priority is to make it mandatory, but there are risks with this – it might mean staff will only attend because they have been told to. Making training mandatory has to be backed up with genuine support from managers for staff to be able to attend – and it needs to be seen as part of a training programme. Otherwise staff will wonder why one piece of training is mandatory, and another is not.

Becoming truly aware

What kind of training work bests? One of the respondents in the report talks about “smart awareness training”. I think what that means is something more than a trainer being brought in to teach staff about different types of disorder. I think this means exposure to practitioners and service users in mental health, for example by spending time with a mental health team. In fact some of the most successful training sessions are a bringing together of staff from different agencies to discuss real or imaginary case studies. This can bring the perspective of say police staff to dealing with a public order offence, and a mental health worker’s perspective on someone with mental health problems presenting problems in the local community. How can the agencies work best together? This interaction will be helpful when it comes to a real life incident in the future. The mental health worker won’t be expected to be a criminal justice expert, and the police will not be expected to be mental health experts. The benefits will come from mutual respect and collaborative working. It’s also easy to see how the opposite might happen. So putting together mental health workers and other staff from other agencies in a room together might highlight difficult relationships that existed before the training event. You may have had the experience of such training where participants sit with their friends and colleagues, and when it comes to group work, we may get representatives of one agency ranged against a group of workers from another agency on another table. Now that might be fruitful, so we know how other agencies work, but of course it can be unhelpful if some participants arrive at a training session having had bad experiences with another agency that then harm the learning experience for all. It’s going to need a skilled facilitator – or maybe even a couple of facilitators with backgrounds in different professions. They’ll know what the agendas are! Tony Morrison sums the concerns up in a chapter on inter-agency training (Horwath J Morrison T 1999). While inter-agency training can play a vital role in facilitation co-ordination, it can only do this within a robust and clear framework for inter-agency working. This is why inter-agency training needs careful planning. So these events need planning, a rationale for why we are doing them, and a response if tensions can’t be resolved on the day. How are the agencies going to deal with a situation where one agency says we won’t be doing that!

More pressure

Which leads me onto another potential barrier to training in something like mental health awareness. Sometimes staff fear that if they attend training in a topic that means they’ll have to add to their responsibilities. If I do mental health awareness training does that mean I’ll have to deal with more people with mental health problems, and I won’t be equipped to do it? All the more reason therefore for a considered mandate for training. I think the answer to those concerns is that you are probably dealing with people with a mental health problem already, and training will help you identify what’s going on. Not necessarily for you to have to deal with on your own, but to know where to go to get specialist support.

David Beckingham – QCS Expert Mental Health Contributor

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