Nothing But Trouble
Author: Andy Meakin, Director, VOICES
We regularly hold quality assurance meetings at the office. It’s important that we reflect on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. This helps us to recognise what we do well and what we can improve.
Today, our discussions included how we move further towards a more strengths-based approach to our work with people experiencing multiple needs. When working with people experiencing homelessness, mental ill-health, addictions, and histories of offending behaviour, it’s too easy to focus exclusively on their needs and to see everything in terms of a presenting risk.
One of the team gave a great example. We were sent a risk assessment about a person being introduced to us for help. In the comments section of the form, a worker had written simply, “nothing but trouble”. Of course, entirely lacking in detail or context this is a weak piece of information from an assessment perspective. However, that is not what is most concerning. As a statement about a fellow human being, this is an inexcusable exaggeration.
Perhaps it says more about taking deficit-based approach to practice that the worker couldn’t think of an apparent positive or mitigating thing to say about this individual. It’s not just that they didn’t write anything positive, it’s an assessment given away by the lazy use of the word “nothing”.
We’ve since got to know the person.
When asked for a description, my team described the person as having a good sense of humour, being reflective, adaptable, and often very reasonable. This latter point was expanded on with the clarification of examples where the person had shown consideration and understanding. So, our experience was that this person could be worked with, would at least recognise when they’d overstepped the mark and take the time to apologise after calming down.
They also described the person as resourceful. For example, on becoming street homeless recently, they had made use of an unwanted kitchen appliance that had been left outside as some shelter from the wind and rain as well as escape the regular abuse the person described experiencing from some members of the public. Of course, there are risks involved in these choices too. Indeed, we wouldn’t necessarily encourage people to use appliances or skips for shelter from either the weather or to seek isolation from other people.
In a modern economy such as this, survival skills that Bear Grylls might recognise should not be necessary in the daily life of anyone. But, such skills are an indication of resourcefulness whether we believe the need for their utilisation to be the result of a dysfunctional society and uncaring system or not. It is also important not to mistake apparent resourcefulness and resilience as reason alone for denying people access to help they clearly need.
Like many of the people we work with, the individual has had an exceptionally difficult and traumatising life. It’s no surprise that they are sometimes angry. I would be too. And, what’s more, I would hazard a guess that you would be as well. Of course, at all times we need to do everything we can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our staff. That includes making some judgements based on the presenting evidence and we recognise that sometimes exclusion from services is hard to avoid. But, don’t we also owe it to the people we work with to think a little harder about their strengths, skills, hopes, and aspirations? Don’t we owe it to people to avoid trite colloquial non-specific exaggerations in the way we describe them?
“Nothing but trouble” is a very harsh description of almost anyone. Simultaneously, this phrase encourages us to imagine the worst, without providing any useful information to inform an assessment.
This kind of “nod and wink” approach to risk information sharing is not good for making evidence based judgements. But, more fundamentally, it does a tremendous disservice and shows a huge disrespect to the very people we’re here to try and help.
The words we use are important.
Let’s think harder about people’s strengths, assets, and resources.