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Interpreter Skills: Working in a Mental Health Facility

In previous blogs in our Interpreter Skills series, we’ve covered the role of the interpreter and proper interpreter conduct. However, it’s important to know that “proper conduct” Is a general set of guidelines: some assignment settings have additional requirements. Working in a mental health facility is an excellent example. In this installment of Interpreter Skills, we’ll talk about some of the specifics you’ll encounter in this field.

Working in a Mental Health Facility

Dressing for an Assignment in a Mental Health Facility

Mental Health Facilities are much stricter environments than general interpreting assignments. At Global Arena, we worked directly with the mental health facilities in our network. We created the following dress code and standards. This is two-fold: it’s about professionalism, but it’s also about safety. For example, we once had an interpreter whose eyebrow piercing was ripped out by a patient. Ensuring that you’re visible as a working professional on the unit means that staff can remove you from volatile situations. The facilities with whom we spoke specifically require the following:

  • Business-conservative attire: clean, neat, moderate in style, well-fitting, and free of holes.
  • Polo shirts, oxford shirts, blouses, turtlenecks, sweaters and cardigans, blazers and sports coats, business-casual pants, slacks, and skirts.
  • Skirts/dresses no shorter than 1” above the knee
  • Shirts must cover the abdomen area at all times
  • A blazer, jacket, or sweater must be worn with sleeveless tops or dresses
  • Foot attire must appear professional and provide safe, secure footing while offering protection against hazards.

It is unacceptable to wear the following:

  • Denim clothing (including but not limited to jeans)
  • Flip flops, sandals, and open –toed shoes
  • Scarves, caps, and hats are not permitted unless relevant to the interpreter’s religion.
  • No visible pierced jewelry is acceptable, except for the earlobes. This policy specifically prohibits the display of piercings in the nose, tongue, lip, or eyebrow.
  • Jewelry should be limited. Bracelets, necklaces, and rings with raised stones should not be worn while on the unit for safety reasons. Earrings must be post-type only. Dangle and loop earrings are forbidden. A wristwatch is permissible.

Items Prohibited on the Unit

It’s vital that interpreters bring nothing that could be used by a patient to hurt themselves or another person. Please keep the following regulations in mind and ensure that no personal items are left unattended or given to patients.

While at a mental health facility, you must leave the following items in a secure place, such as your car, a locker, or behind the nurse’s station

  • Weapons of any nature
  • Laptop computers, cell phones and personal electronic devices
  • Personal bags
  • Alcohol or illegal substances
  • Cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
  • Cameras or recording devices of any kind
  • House and car keys
  • Medications
  • Matches or lighters
  • Safety pins

Books are permitted on the unit, provided they are related to interpreting and/or medical terminology (i.e., for study purposes). Notebooks and pens should be kept at the nurse’s station when not immediately in use during the assignment.

Proper Conduct at a Mental Health Facility

As evident by the dress and item procedures, interpreting in a mental health facility is quite different from general interpreting. In addition to assignment prep, there are a few differences in session conduct:

  • First, it’s important to remember that it’s inappropriate to ever be left alone with the patient or patients. An interpreter’s job is only to interpret interactions between the patients and staff. If there’s no staff there, you shouldn’t be there either. The behavioral health facilities in our network have agreed that interpreters are welcome to stay by the tech desk. They’re aware that interpreters should not be left alone with the patients. However, there’s a fair amount of staff turnover in this profession. New staff often aren’t briefed on this.
  • Behavioral health facilities tend to contract for 6–8-hour days. Much of that time will not be spent actively interpreting. As cell phones/other electronic devices are prohibited on the unit, we suggest that you = bring interpreting study materials. This might include a dictionary. Having study materials helps to pass the time between interpreting sessions. Books are allowed, though they should be of a professional nature/ex: to help you study interpreting vocabulary, etc. Please note that pencils, pens, and markers are also prohibited at all times when you’re not immediately interpreting.
  • Never bring chargers or cables onto the unit for any reason. Jewelry should also be limited, though watches are fine. Dangling earrings present a risk and shouldn’t be worn.
  • Advocating for yourself is important. Use your agency as a resource if you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Ask to step out and call your project manager. We’ll speak with the staff and remind them of your safety rights and the role of the interpreter. Cheerfully. It’s a delicate balance between keeping the staff happy and keeping the role of the interpreter intact. Your safety comes first, always. It will never reflect poorly on you if you call to let us know you feel unsafe or to report an incident.

Balance between compassion and personal detachment

Working at mental health facilities showcases the balance between compassion and personal detachment that interpreters face with every assignment. It is entirely true that the majority of patients who need help at Mental Health Facilities are not dangerous. It’s true that when people are aggressive because of their mental health needs or conditions, it’s not their fault. And it’s equally true that you have the right to work in an environment that’s as safe as possible.

It’s important to not downplay the risks involved in this work. You are important. Your health, safety, and comfort are important. If you ever feel that any of those are compromised, please step out of the unit and call your project manager immediately. Our job is to advocate for you and we take it seriously.

Global Arena’s 16-Hour Interpreting Course

Are you interested in discussing more topics like the ones we cover in Interpreter Skills? Would you like to connect with peers in the interpreting industry in a dynamic course setting? Global Arena’s Interpreting program offers new and established interpreters an opportunity to build and refine their skills. The course takes place live, over Zoom, at the end of each month. It’s divided into four days of four hours each, from 8:30 AM- 12:30 PM every day. The course culminates in a final exam and certificate of course completion upon passing score. Click here to learn more and sign up!

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