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Market House / Life is getting more complicated but Advocacy Shetland is here to help

DURING the coronavirus pandemic it is more vital than ever that the needs and wellbeing of vulnerable people and families across Shetland continue to be fully heard and supported, writes Alex Purbrick.

These needs can be more than food or mental health support in the form of counselling or therapy. Sometimes we all need someone to walk with us, help us write a difficult letter; explain a complicated process or just accompany us to a stressful meeting or even help with a critical telephone consultation.

There are occasions where we do not understand what our full options are in a difficult situation or where we need help and support in asking the right questions of officials within Shetland and the mainland who are playing a deciding role in our life.

Advocacy Shetland is a local organisation that can help in situations like this.

It is an independent advocacy organisation run by paid and voluntary staff who have been working throughout the pandemic helping vulnerable people gain access to the information they need in order to make choices about their circumstances as well as empowering them to have their voices heard in expressing their needs and wishes.

Although Advocacy Shetland is a charity, it is also a statutory group in that the local authority has a duty to provide an independent advocacy service to the community and so it is part-funded by the NHS and Shetland Islands Council.

It sits under the umbrella of the Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance (SIAA) – https://www.siaa.org.uk/ – which has the overall aim of ensuring that independent advocacy is available to any vulnerable person in Scotland.

Explaining the role of the organisation, manager of Advocacy Shetland Helen Rankine said: “We give a voice to people who for whatever reason can’t speak up for themselves and it’s usually with accessing council or NHS services.

Advocacy Shetland manager Helen Rankine.

“We find out what their problem is and we discuss what their options are. The world has become more bureaucratic and it’s often quite difficult to understand what your options are.

“If you’re vulnerable or have mental health problems or you’re really going through a tough time, it’s quite daunting to do this yourself.”

Helen and her team are trained independent advocates who do not make decisions on behalf of the person or group they are supporting but rather help a person/group access the information they need and make suitable choices depending on their circumstances whilst also enabling the person to be heard.

There are a wide range of people they support from those with learning difficulties, autism, dementia, severe mental health problems to carers assisting these individuals.

As Helen explained: “A lot of people think advocates are lawyers. We’re not!

“We walk alongside people and help them see where they’re at, what their options are. And we speak up for them at meetings or we encourage them to speak up because we believe in helping empower them.

“We can’t be everything to everyone though, so sometimes we will signpost to other organisations best placed to assist them”.

Advocacy Shetland deals with a whole range of issues that cause people worry, from being evicted to having questions about their care. The coronavirus pandemic has affected how support is given across and many elderly or vulnerable people struggle with the “new” ways of working.

Helen said that should not put people off contacting them.

“Most meetings are conducted by phone, or by teleconferencing. We are doing some face-to-face meetings though we try to minimise that or do it with social distancing.  We are however still happy to meet clients if it is unavoidable.

“Not everyone can access online meet ups or feel confident with technology.  You have to weigh up the balance of what danger we are in just now with Covid-19 and how great the person’s ultimate need is.

“We are trying to reach the people who are inaccessible, or hard to reach, the people who aren’t on Facebook or email.  We can reassure people that the service is still here, and has not altered dramatically or minimised because of the current situation.”

Most of the time Advocacy Shetland worsk with individual clients and/or their families but prior to Covid-19 restrictions they organised peer group advocacy and in one case had an adult group with learning difficulties they assisted with everyday challenges.

One of these were the difficulties the group had in understanding the bus timetables. To combat this, Advocacy Shetland invited the council’s head of transport planning, Michael Craigie, to talk to the group and hear first hand the issues the group had encountered.

As Helen explained: “Michael took on board what they were saying and as a result they felt their voices had been heard and respected.”

Ultimately the peer group advocacy enabled the adults to have a stronger voice and feel like they had more control over their own lives, two things that Advocacy Shetland strongly encourage.

“Many people have an automatic right to advocacy yet many people might think I don’t know if they can help me, I don’t know if I’m eligible?

“We’re here to say please contact us and ask because the chances are we can help you or point you in the right direction,” Helen said.

For more information on the work of Advocacy Shetland please contact the team via e-mail: advocacy@shetland.gov.uk or by calling them on 01595 743929 or 743953.