Behavior

One other thing your hairdresser-or cabbie -may know for sure

ANDREAS SCHROEDER May 30 1977
Behavior

One other thing your hairdresser-or cabbie -may know for sure

ANDREAS SCHROEDER May 30 1977

One other thing your hairdresser-or cabbie -may know for sure

Behavior

Forget priests and psychiatrists; the spiritual guides of the Seventies are bartenders, hairdressers, cabdrivers and door-to-door salesmen. That, at least, is the view of Toronto mental health educator Howard Richardson, who is putting his theory into practice in a new kind of frontline psychiatry. Since people in distress are more and more reluctant to approach traditional shock absorbers such as church and family, the argument goes, they need substitute confessors, and the most logical candidates are those who deal with the public daily as part of their regular job.

Some of these people see Richardson’s point. Says John Menses, Toronto cabdriver: “A cabbie is a sort of pay-as-you-go priest. You talk to the back of the driver’s head and probably never see him again.” Echoes Jacques Granville, hairdressing instructor at Toronto’s Humber College: “in a way, the beauty salon is the new backyard of the Seventies. Women can lean over the fence and talk a lot of their troubles away.” When Richardson first realized how often laymen find themselves counseling strangers whether they want to or not, he developed an ambition: to enlist a whole army of such laymen, train them to recognize the early stages of mental dis-

tress, instruct them in a modest form of first aid, and form a nationwide front line in the battle against mental illness.

He decided to try it. In 1974, as executive director of Mental Health Ontario, a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, he proposed what is now known as the Community Response Program, a pilot project modeled on similar programs underway in the United States. With $86,100 from Health and Welfare Canada and $2,900 from the Ontario-based Laidlaw Foundation, he assembled a group of communications theorists and educators to design a basic course for training layman “mental health helpers.” In September, 1976, the first set of four-session workshops for bartenders, hairdressers and business people was launched in Toronto.

“The first thing they taught us was how to listen, and I mean listen,” explains cabdriver Menses. “That was a major problem with everybody.” (It was an even harder lesson for the business people, who turned out to be the poorest listeners as well as the quickest to offer advice.) Next, they learned to assess exactly what they heard,

and then, slowly, to discern characteristics likely to indicate stress. Participants often had difficulty translating their instinctual understanding into theory. “How can I explain how I know a guy’s in trouble virtually the minute he walks through the door?” a bartender shrugs. “Something in his stance, the way he looks around, his hands—all I can tell you is that I know.”

So they showed each other through roleplaying and improvisational techniques what they couldn’t verbalize: the broker on his way to self-destruction; the office employee on a coffee and tranquilizer diet; the drinker trying to walk a straight line on a high wire; the woman looking for a perm and a change of planet for $10. And they devised methods of helping such people— heavy on the listening, easy on the advice, and lots and lots of good old friendly support. On the whole, they learned to give simple, seat-of-the-pants mental help, minus the usual airy speculation and fancy terminology. They developed procedures to let the distressed person work out his own salvation, operating on the assumption that most people actually know the solution to their problem; they just need a little time to get used to seeing the answer staring them in the face. For problems clearly beyond their layman capacities, they were instructed to give the client a card with a central 24-hour telephone number for an agency referral.

Halfway through the 22-month pilot project, eight of 31 courses have been conducted and by the time it is completed 400 people will have been involved, including pool hall operators, librarians, volunteer prison workers, waitresses, policemen and retail merchants. So far, response has been enthusiastic. Inquiries have been coming in from individuals and organizations in other provinces; and in Calgary, a group of cabdrivers heard about the program on the radio and sent in a tape of their own experiences. Richardson is delighted. “We’re spending far too much on specialists these days,” he says. “We shouldn’t be using high-priced psychiatric help for mental difficulties which can be dealt with much less formally.”

No doubt Canada’s 1,855 psychiatrists would agree—right now there is one psychiatrist for every 12,400 Canadians. Besides, studies demonstrate—as do the new street psychiatrists—that nonprofessionals often relate more effectively to people in distress than professionals do. Know what the hairdressers call their program in North Dakota? Shampoo, Set & Sympathy. ANDREAS SCHROEDER