Why have a contact person?
The purpose is to make group members aware who they can talk to with problems like:
Something that is making it difficult for them to participate in the group
A conflict they’re having with another group member
Personal or mental health struggles
Concerns they have about another group member who may need help
See more about the benefits of a contact person in this post.
By default, in a small group the contact person will be whoever the visible organizer(s) are. As groups develop more, they may want to assign one or more contact people who aren’t necessarily also organizing events.
This role might have overlap with “thinking about how to generally make the group better and more welcoming,” but isn’t necessarily the same thing. There’s some risk of having things related to community health relegated to one or two people, and we’d like welcomingness to be seen as something that everyone has a part in, even if there are designated contact people.
Characteristics of a good contact person:
Warm and empathetic
Able to keep calm in stressful situations
Willing to help where they can, but able to identify when a situation is too much for them and set boundaries or get outside help
Good judgement around maintaining people’s privacy
Has been around the group long enough that many group members are familiar with them
Has some flexibility in their schedule to talk with people when things come up
Background in mental health work or social services may be helpful
If having more than one person, best to have a mix of genders
Members may be more comfortable talking to someone of their own gender
In a situation of sexual harassment, it can be helpful to have someone of the same gender confront the problem (a man talk to a man or a woman to a woman)
You will probably not find anyone who perfectly meets all the characteristics you might want in a contact person! Having someone who wants to do a good job and meets most of these characteristics is probably better than not having a contact person.
Making people aware who the contact person is
See “Notes on codes of conduct” for ideas on simple, friendly ways to make group members aware of who they can talk to.
If group members recognize a problem, you don’t necessarily have to be the one to take action. There may be someone else who’s better-placed to have a difficult conversation, provide support, etc. Sometimes you may serve as a coordinator rather than the person taking direct action.
One common thing is that group members notice a concern about another member but aren’t sure what to do to help them. Sometimes the best thing you can do is get in touch with someone who knows them better to say, “I noticed X seemed to be having a hard time / said something that worried me / isn’t acting like herself, but I don’t know her well — would you be comfortable talking to her to check in on how she’s doing?
Always feel welcome to reach out to the community health team at CEA for advice or support around community issues.
Julia Wise, firstname.lastname@example.org, background in mental health work
You will not always be able to help with a given problem. Sometimes the best you can do is listen, explain what you are able and unable to do, and try to provide ideas for where the person might go for further help.
We don’t believe the answer to any mental health question is only “see a professional.” We believe people’s friends and community supports can play an important role in addition to professionals, or when a person is not willing or able to get professional care. But sometimes, when you judge that a situation is serious and you’re not able to handle it, the best thing you can say is “I really think you need to see a doctor.” If you’re able to support them in getting professional care (for example, helping them work out what their insurance covers or helping them make an appointment), that’s even better.
The Mediator’s Handbook - I haven’t ended up doing mediation per se, but I found this book helpful for getting a sense for what kind of things mediators do and thinking about helping people who are in conflict.
When a friend is feeling suicidal - more about people you already know well
What to do to help someone who may be suicidal - more about people you don’t know well
Things that sometimes help if you have depression - by Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist and EA
Things that sometimes help if you have anxiety - also by Scott Alexander
A short guide to people who can help with your mental health (US specific) - by Kate Donovan, a therapist and EA
How to get therapy - by Kate Donovan, before she was a therapist. Somewhat US specific.