Sunday, September 14, 2008

Terror at the Counter

This only happened a few days ago, so perhaps that explains why I haven't posted. It is harder to write when fresh, as I might not come off as so kind. The gloss of time makes all of our memories heroic. Am I avoiding the brutality of writing honestly about myself?

In this incident, I was attending one of my son's psychiactric appointments. It can't be the easiest job in the world to run the front counter for a mental health clinic. It's got to rack right up there with the counter clerks at Money Mart. Harried from before and within, it's got to be an unrewarding job. I could read all of this in the few minutes we had our encounter. I stood less than a foot from the bulletproof glass. She was hunched over and gave me the barest eye contact. It was as if she dearly hoped I had no reason to be there and that I would quickly leave. Behind her, a half-dozen workers were chatting it up.

I told her I was to meet my son at his appointment. I had his name but not the name of his worker. This was a problem, apparently, as her brow furled. She started flipping through her work pad and looking at the computer screen. She asked if I had the worker's name and I said that my son refers to him only as his "therapist". The crowd behind her desk suddenly burst out laughing and left. Was it my comment or some other private funny? In any case, I was not impressed. As the counter clerk continued to shuffle through her papers, I pulled out my Blackberry and called my son on his cell phone. It turns out he was in his therapist's office, and his name was Jim. I relayed this key bit of information. Then I found out my son was on a different floor. I asked if there was a different reception on that floor, and left.

Where my behavior was not the best was that I remained cool and professional. Probably I don't like being eyed as a potential mental patient. Also, I am hypersensitive to how I am treated at counters, and I have a low tolerance for inefficiency. That girl at the front desk should have all the information at her fingertips to do her job well. She didn't, and I was annoyed. She didn't want me to be there, so I was annoyed. What is unfortunate, is she could not know that my annoyance was not at all personal. It was no reflection on her, personally.

Except, darnit, she acts as if she is afraid of her own clients. Her body language screams, "Get me out of here". She flinched when I approached the counter, "Oh, no. Here comes another one." She never knows if the client is going to be kind or frantic. Frantic for the mentally ill can escalate all the way up to calling the paddy wagon.

There was a paddy wagon parked outside the facility that day.

I wonder if there is an unpleasant encounter that escalates to the paddy wagon, if the counter clerk could be spelled off to get a mental break and a chance to recover.

It seems to me that it would help to elevate her floor so that, when seated, she would be eye-to-eye with the client when they approach. I'm thinking this height can be non-threatening if done right. The Pike Place counter is quite high. Would it help also to deepen the counter so that the distance between the client and the glass were more like two and a half feet? I think that is the Canadian cultural norm for appropriate distance. Also, the space behind her should not be open for random social gatherings. It is distracting for both the clerk and the supplicant.

And finally, she needs to be frequently told the value of her job, and be given all the tools to do it. She should be the most informed person in that clinic. If there are two mental health counters in that building, they should have information about each of their appointments that day as well.

What is the great thing that she adds to these people's day? Reassurance that they are heard, and that their concerns are being taken seriously. She can help a mentally ill person feel at peace. On the random days when the paddy wagon gets called anyways, it's not her fault.