SANE Australia asks: Are you providing good service?

Whether dealing with counter staff, call centres or other customer service outlets, people living with a
mental illness often feel they are treated differently and, on occasion, discriminated against.

Meanwhile, in banks, post offices and other centres around the country, customer service workers may
encounter someone who seems anxious, confused or distressed because of the effects of mental
illness. Feedback suggests staff often feel they don’t know how to deal with people in these situations.
The resulting exchange can lead to mutual misunderstanding, impatience, and distress, with the
person in need missing out on important services and supports.

The new SANE Guide for Customer Service aims to change this, by giving practical information
and advice to those who work in service delivery, to improve how they interact with people with a
mental illness, so they provide a better service.

‘Many customer service staff deal with people with a mental illness regularly, without always realising
it,’ says SANE Australia’s Executive Director, Barbara Hocking. ‘But when difficulties arise, it’s
important to know what to do to get the best outcome for everyone. Better understanding and improved
communication skills can make a big difference.’

The SANE Guide for Customer Service has tips on do’s and don’ts; practical advice on language;
information on mental illness and how it affects people as well as how to help someone in a crisis,
and several case studies suggesting ways to assist using the HELP communication model for
customer service staff.

Peter Humphries, who provided feedback during the Guide’s development when he worked at
Centrelink, describes the resource as ‘clear, accessible and balanced.’

“I think the Guide reinforces the fact that customer service staff can manage difficult situations, if
they treat people with respect,’ says Mr Humphries, who now lectures at the Australian Catholic
University’s School of Social Work.

Jeff, who’s lived with schizophrenia for more than 25 years, agrees. He says everyone should be
treated with respect and courtesy.

‘One of the effects of my illness is that I speak loudly and I find it very difficult to modulate my
voice. People tell me to stop yelling at them. They don’t think about what might be the cause,’
Jeff explains.

‘We shouldn’t make assumptions about other people,’ he adds.

SANE’s Executive Director, Barbara Hocking, says she hopes the Guide will also play a part in
reducing the stigma associated with mental illness.