Volunteers and Lay Workers needed to help overcome public health challenges. Professor Jane South.

Last Wednesday I went to a public lecture delivered by  Professor Jane South.

It was advertised on Eventbrite – the online events site.  I’m not averse to the odd public lecture and it sounded relevant – so I thought I’d go.  In fact it was much more than relevant.  It was engaging, inspiring and it followed the lines of a conversation which seems to make sense to me and keeps attracting my attention.

Professor Jane South – Inaugural Lecture – Leeds Metropolitan University

The basic gist of the lecture was to explore the premise that current health challenges cannot be met without engaging the public in Public Health action.  To meet this requirement she envisaged an increase in the use of Volunteers and Lay Workers, such as Peer Support Workers and Lay Health Trainers.  She proposed that this would result in services that work and fit better along with a greater sense of empowerment for the people involved.

Dr Jane South

Jane began her career in Nursing and during this time made an observation which was to inform the direction of her career:  She saw that ‘the Doctor knows best philosophy’ could be dis-empowering. She gave examples of Health Promotion strategies which had failed, as they didn’t quite fit. They had been designed by those who didn’t grasp the full nature of the situation – as they weren’t at the coal face and perhaps had a touch of the Ivory Tower syndrome (check DSM !)

Using Volunteers and Lay Workers -she said, would help secure a greater fit.  She proposed that all parties would benefit – the volunteers, the organisations and the communities. Volunteers may gain in confidence, have improved social contact, a greater sense of empowerment and access to more opportunities. It could provide a greater sense of empowerment for those receiving the services.   She further suggested that involving people in this way may then create a ripple effect to more active citizenship. Her tag line was ‘Think Big, Act Local and Join up.’

Inequality can be dis-empowering for people, which in turn  can result in a reduction of self-esteem.   I believe it’s healthy and really important for us human beings  to have a sense of empowerment.  I guess once upon a time we lived upon the land, in smaller communities, built ourselves shelter and found our own food – a sense of mastery which is difficult to attain today.  I have at times felt very dis-empowered in my own life and have struggled with low self-esteem which in turn has greatly affected my ability to look after myself both physically and emotionally. Working on the blog and being involved in Peer Support at Leeds Mind, both as a participant and as a volunteer,  has helped me to feel much more empowered, it’s given me a voice, a purpose and has helped to increase my sense of belonging.

At the end of Jane’s lecture there was a positive response from the audience, many of whom were professionals and worked in the health and social care/public health sector.  A member of the audience made the point that using Volunteers and Lay Workers wasn’t just a cheaper option but also a better option.

I managed to have a brief word with Jane – as it occurred to me that there was a fine line between the empowerment of unpaid volunteers and the exploitation of them.  She replied that ‘exploitation is something that would have to be carefully guarded against.’   With this final caveat in mind,  I think it’s a really positive thing! What do you think?

Thanks for reading!

Check out #profjanesouth for comments about this lecture from Twitter.

Jane is the Professor of Healthy Communities in the institute of Health and Wellbeing at Leeds Metropolitan University. She is the Director of the Centre for Health Promotion Research in faculty of Health & Social Sciences.

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