“If you are travelling with another person who requires assistance, secure your mask first before assisting the other person”

Dr Helen Miles
5 min readAug 2, 2019

02.08.19: Over the past week I have continued to visit more Centrepoint Services, albeit this time in rain showers rather than a heatwave (!), to speak with staff and young people about the development of our Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) within the organisation. As it is now summer time, it is unsurprising that discussions outside of PIE have turned to annual leave and plans to travel abroad on holiday for a chance to rest, recuperate and spend time with friends and loved ones. These holiday discussions have reminded me of the airline safety announcements, common on airplanes, which remind us of the importance of ensuring we are ‘safe’ before we help those around us. Specifically, we are always told to put the Oxygen masks that fall from the plane ceiling when there is air decompression in the cabin on ourselves first BEFORE putting them on our children or fellow travellers. This is actually an important principle to bear in mind when we work in any sort of caring role with others.

The work that Centrepoint staff undertake can often be wonderfully rewarding and fulfilling, especially when we help a young person to achieve their potential through a safe ‘home’ and an opportunity for education, training, employment or engagement in other activities. Knowing that we have been critical in setting a young person on a new path out of homelessness and exclusion, into a valued place in society that will allow their potential to flourish can be extremely gratifying. However, the work can also be challenging and emotionally draining at times, drawing on all of our internal strength and resources to deal with the challenges and complexity that homeless young people often have in their lives. How do we manage this? What keeps us going, and prevents us from burning out or becoming overwhelmed and stressed?

One of the key things that you learn when training to be a psychologist is the importance of self-care and support from others. Listening to distressing experiences recounted in therapy sessions, or challenging the mental health system to advocate in the best interests of your clients can be difficult, and it is important to ensure that you have the right support around you, through supervision and reflective practice as well as informal support networks of family and friends, to manage the inevitable feelings (both the highs and the lows) that a caring role can evoke in us.

Within a PIE, staff support and reflective practice (RP) are critical. Not only because they ensure that we have space to consider whether we are doing the ‘best we can’ for those we are seeking to help, but also because they give us the space to reflect on our own feelings and what can be triggered for us when we are helping others.

Specifically, regular RP provides staff working in a PIE with a space to process and discuss actions, reflect on what has and hasn’t worked well, explore current issues, learn from incidents and develop actions moving forward, which improves the psychological awareness and responsiveness both the individual and the wider service. It can also allow frontline staff in particular with a structured space to explore different ways of thinking about how a young person is presenting (e.g. with challenging behaviours) and formulate new solutions to address these that consider the predisposing, precipitating, perpetuating and protective factors unique to that young person. It also allows an opportunity to further embed learning from PIE training and develop psychological thinking in staff (Johnson & Haigh, 2010). Finally, having such a perspective on the emotional challenges of work in this sector can reduce staff burnout, attrition and absenteeism (PIE Good Practice Guide; Keats et al, 2012).

Centrepoint will be introducing monthly RP for all staff teams across the organisation later in the year as part of the PIE journey that we are currently embarked upon. In the meantime, it still remains important for us as staff working in this sector to ‘take care of ourselves’. Throughout my psychology career this has been best achieved by staff working together and supporting their colleagues, sometimes in person day to day in the office or within the service, sometimes even virtually through online communication (e.g. What’s App group) when we aren’t physically located together. It’s that sense that we ‘have each other’s back’ and we are all working together to ensure the best outcomes; ‘a home and a job’ for those that use our services, that is vital.

However, it’s not just in work that we need to practice self-care. Outside of work gives us time to refresh, recuperate and recharge. This doesn’t always mean that we have to jet off away on a summer holiday to do this, although of course this is lovely especially at this time of year(!), rather it is often the things we do each day, week or month that help. For example, playing (or watching) a sport or going to the gym, spending time with family and friends, using techniques such as Mindfulness meditation or relaxation to ‘de-stress’ (e.g. Jon Kabat-Zinn — Guided Mindfulness available via You Tube or Google), listening to music, reading a good book, participating in other hobbies or interests, going for a walk into a green space, having a relaxing bath or just time to ourselves, and talking to others or seeking help if things get too overwhelming. The list is endless because we are all unique individuals and what helps me may be different to someone else; what is your list of ‘self-care activities’?

Nevertheless, regardless of what we do for our own self-care, the critical thing to remember is that we need to do it regularly; do we do ‘our self-care list’ enough? Again everyone is different, but the one thing we all have in common when working in a ‘helping role’ is that as the aviation safety announcement states, we must ensure our ‘oxygen mask is in place and we are breathing’ before we can be in any position to help those young people that need our support within Centrepoint Services.

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Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at Centrepoint @orange_madbird