Public Education: Strategies to Raise Awareness about Specific Issues
By Holly Mathers, BA, MTS
There are many issues that bring people to counselling. These are issues that can also be raised through other methods in order to reach a wider audience and therefore impact more people. It is important to have therapists who also do public education work. At Hope for Families Counselling Centre, we specialize in working with individuals and families dealing with illness. There are several ways we have worked and continue to work to raise awareness about issues related to living with chronic illness. This article explains those approaches. These options can be applied to any specific issue.
For over two years I hosted a radio show on a local radio station. They were looking for new ideas so we wrote a proposal about having a call in show about a variety of life issues. This gave us an opportunity to talk about topics related to illness, along with exploring other general life issues. We had guests on the show at different times to talk about their life experiences or professionals to talk about related work or community programs. It was a great way to share more information with people in the surrounding community.
The other benefit of hosting the Hope for Families Radio Show is that the shows that are relevant to our ongoing work are available for anyone to listen to at any time on our website so they continue to be a resource.
Another advantage of the radio show experience is that it was a helpful way to gain experience and comfort speaking publicly. Radio is a good first step since the audience is not there watching. The difference in my comfort level, confidence, and quality as a radio show host is evident when the early shows are compared with later shows.
A drawback of the radio show option is that it is often done on a voluntary basis and is not a paid position. It can also be time consuming to prepare and host a weekly radio show. And the audience base of the station was not huge. Many people host online radio shows now, which is another option worth exploring. The benefits and drawbacks are similar.
Members of the media need people to interview for relevant stories that arise. When therapists are comfortable with these settings, they can have many opportunities to speak to a wider audience. I was approached by a news radio station to be interviewed for a story about couples based on a recent article they read. It sounded as if at least a few therapists had been approached to comment in an interview but they had declined. This may have been due to scheduling but more likely was due to their discomfort about speaking publicly.
Radio is not the only medium used by the media. Television shows also seek out guests about various topics to be interviewed. Our work grew out of personal experience of living with my sister Amy’s chronic illness. She and our father were approached by Trillium Gift of Life to go on a local television show to discuss organ donation. This was another opportunity to reach a wider audience in a new way.
Public speaking is another option. Various organizations, conferences, and events require speakers for their programming. By contacting organizations with information about potential topics and biographical information, therapists can seek out opportunities to speak with groups where their area of expertise is relevant. Since our work is about illness, we have spoken for or led workshops for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada, and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Amy is scheduled to speak at the Cardiac Rehabilitation Symposium in May 2012 in Toronto, Ontario.
Leading information sessions in collaboration with other organizations also provides an opportunity to reach new people. Recently I led one session of a four session Home Caregiver Support Program developed by St. John Ambulance and The Order of St. Lazarus Canada. They created sessions for caregivers about Emotional/Psychological Needs, Physical Needs, Social Needs, and Spiritual Needs. I facilitated the Emotional/Psychological Needs portion of the program for them.
Facilitating groups is another way to reach more people dealing with a specific issue at once. This can be done on a contract basis for other organizations that provide groups to specific demographics and need facilitators. It can also be done through other community organizations like churches or privately through a counselling practice.
We facilitated a group called Support Space for teens who had a parent with cancer through an organization called HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre. I have also facilitated grief groups for The Coping Centre – an organization that provides bereavement groups to a wide range of people. Currently we offer Caregiver Support Groups for people caring for someone with an illness. These groups are paid for by a church community and offered at no charge to the group participants.
As we worked more with individuals and families dealing with illness, we became more aware of the issues they face and the lack of knowledge among staff in the helping and health care professions of these issues. In order to begin to address this gap, we developed a course aimed at students in post-secondary level programs. It is entitled Assisting Families Dealing with Chronic Illness. The course covers the issues, challenges and needs of families dealing with illness. It makes professionals more aware of how to provide helpful and relevant person-centred care to this population.
We created an outline for the proposed course and then approached a nearby college. They hired us to teach it as an elective for their Applied Counselling Program – a post-diploma or degree program offered through their Continuing Education Department. Through the course we were able to teach nurses, child & youth workers, personal support workers, community workers, students becoming counsellors, and other professionals.
Developing and teaching that course also helped us to further formulate our ideas. We now have a clear understanding of what the important messages in our field are and how we can convey those to other professionals. The material we put together for the course can also be used in smaller pieces for our public speaking and to offer workshops to professionals and people dealing with illness.
Another way we provide information to people is through writing. We have written articles for newsletters about Care for Caregivers and other topics related to our work. This raises awareness about the issues, educates people, and also informs them about supports that are available like the Caregiver Support Group.
Amy has a blog called The Phoenix Zine (www.phoenixzine.org) for people living with chronic illness where she explores a variety of topics related to her experiences and perspectives. This is a way to reach people who could live anywhere in the world. The internet is a tool that can make information available almost anywhere. People dealing with their own illness can read and comment on Amy’s posts. Professionals can also access her blog and gain by reading about the perspective of a patient who also works to provide support to others with an illness. The Phoenix Zine is a place where new ideas and approaches to illness are explored.
Amy and I created a resource for people living with a chronic illness called The Phoenix Pages (www.ThePhoenixPages.com). It is an 8.5” x 5.5” binder designed to help the user manage their illness and live their life. The binder includes sections with forms and charts for:
- Getting Started: Information & Tip Sheets
- Basic Information
- Medication Information
- Medical Contacts
- Medical History
- Dealing with Life
- Easily Accessible Places I Like
- Q & A
- To-Do List
This is a practical tool to assist people dealing with an illness to manage their medical information. It also helps them address their practical, social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs through a variety of sections.
The reason we refer to the phoenix is because it is a mythological bird reborn from its own ashes when it dies. Dealing with chronic illness means rising from the ashes of the life you were ideally going to have, and having the courage to build a new life both sensitive to your medical needs and honouring to the fact you are not your illness.
In any area of focus, relevant resources can be created to help people. This could include conventional books written about a certain topic or more interactive resources.
Having a user-friendly website is essential. We live in a time when the majority of people turn to the internet for information. Over time, we continue to update our website (www.hopeforfamilies.net) and try to make it useful. Our website serves as an important link to all of the services and resources we provide. Even therapists who are not interested in pursuing other options to educate the public would benefit from creating a website where people can find out about their services.
The biggest barrier to reaching more people through public education is the idea that there are no opportunities for this to happen. There are many ways to find and create these opportunities if a therapist is willing to take the steps to do so and is passionate about their message.
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