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The power of a poem: how reading broke David’s isolation

EleanorMcCann, TheReader project

Guest post by Eleanor McCann, The Reader project

Whenever I arrived to read with patients at the psychiatric hospital, David was always alone. I approached him a few times but the weeks went by and he seemed unreachable, saying nothing and making no eye contact. One evening, I came on to the ward to find him lying on a sofa with the lights off, his hood up and his earphones in. All the barriers were up. I handed him a poem and, to my amazement, he took his earphones out, his hood down and said: “Can you turn on the light?”

The poem I gave to David was Release, by R.S. Gwynn. It goes:

Slow for the sake of flowers as they turn
Toward sunlight, graceful as a line of sail
Coming into the wind. Slow for the mill-
Wheel’s heft and plummet, for the chug and churn
Of water as it gathers, for the frail
Half-life of spraylets as they toss and spill.

For all that lags and eases, all that shows
The winding-downward and diminished scale
Of days declining to a twilit chill,
Breathe quietly, release into repose:
Be still.

I think the poem’s stillness broke David’s silence. After that, he joined the reading group on his ward, where we enjoyed short stories, such as Saki’s The Lumber Room and Doris Lessing’s Through the Tunnel; extracts from novels including Jane Eyre and The Old Man and the Sea and poems old and new. We read Release with the group and David said he loved the last two lines, especially. He said: “Poems can move you even though you’re sat still. Probably you actually have to be still like it says there. It’s different from feeling manic.”

Weekly Get Into Reading groups bring people together to read aloud. Pic: The Reader project

David has instructed me to always approach him: “Come and knock on my door, even when I’m in the dark and I’ve got my back to you.” This is the essence of why the reading project exists: to knock on doors, bringing light and lightness through reading.

David’s group is one of about 280 Get Into Reading (GIR) groups across the UK. GIR brings people together through weekly read aloud groups, where people can choose to read and are invited to give personal responses. We have groups in locations such as care homes, libraries, prisons, mental health drop-in centres, community centres, schools, hostels, refugee centres and workplaces. Sessions are an opportunity for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to engage with reading for pleasure. The work aims to bring about, what we call, a Reading Revolution. This means we want to make literature available to those most in need in our society, as a way of fostering individual wellbeing and social cohesion.

Reading as part of a group can bring mental health benefits. Pic: The Reader project

I work specifically within mental health settings so my groups are in a variety of health-care environments: older people’s care homes; psychiatric units; secure hospitals and addictions services. This type of work is an innovation. The medical director of Mersey Care NHS Trust has said that “Get Into Reading is one of the biggest developments in mental health practice in the last 10 years.” We believe our model is a pioneering way of using creative partnership to deliver meaningful activity to patients. Reading should not be merely an additional intervention; I would identify it as an integral part of the care provision for mental health patients.

My grandmother was an occupational therapist in the 1960s and 70s, and she remembers reading aloud with some of the people with whom she came into contact. It’s just that we are only now really realising the full extent of the potential that literature has to help people- and that this can amount to the transformation of lives and communities.

We have recently carried out some evaluation so have statistics to substantiate this. 54 reading group attendees, both inpatients and outpatients, filled in a questionnaire. The results showed very encouraging responses to their experience of the reading groups.

There were some overwhelmingly positive results, for example, 94% of people agreed with the statement ‘The reading group has given me a chance to take part in interesting discussions’ – but the results form our research are particularly relevant in the context of mental health. In response to the statement “reading has improved my mood”, 78% agreed, 18% neither agreed nor disagreed and just 4% disagreed. And in reaction to the statement that “in the group I’m able to be myself”, 79% agreed, 19% neither agreed nor disagreed and just 2% disagreed. Our research showed 85% agreed with the comment “I’m more able to relax” while 11% neither agreed nor disagreed and 5% disagreed.

I find my work extremely rewarding, primarily because of qualitative, individualised stories like David’s, but this is verified by a growing evidence base, pointing to cost-effective, lasting benefits for our readers.

* Eleanor McCann is a project worker with Mersey Care Reads, a collaboration between The Reader Organisation and Mersey Care NHS Trust. The organisation was a runner-up in last year’s Guardian Public Service Award. Eleanor’s work involves delivering weekly reading groups in mental health settings across Merseyside. She is also studying for a masters in Reading in Practice, a course combining literature and health science, at the University of Liverpool and is co-editor of The Reader magazine. Eleanor can be contacted at eleanormccann@thereader.org.uk

Lessons in leadership: how to grow youth talent

Guest post by Alison Bradley, youth charity Mosaic
The world is changing rapidly for young people who have to learn to survive and perform in a competitive global environment. Now, more than ever, is the time for young people to take the lead in developing themselves and in having a positive impact on the individuals and communities around them.

The question is, how?

Despite their best attempts, with the current economic climate, a growing number of young people in the UK and abroad face unemployment. In addition, in the last year we have seen the disenchantment of young people culminate in large scale events, both in the UK riots in the summer, and in the ongoing protests for regime change across the Middle East.

I work for Mosaic, a charitable initiative of HRH The Prince of Wales, creating opportunities for young people of every background. We aim to have a positive effect on confidence, employability and self efficacy. By showing young people what inspirational leadership looks like, introducing them to role models who they can relate to, and persuading them that they too can be leaders who make a positive impact on the people around them – we aim to turn frustration and inertia into action and responsibility.

A Mosaic secondary school mentoring session

We have found some key factors to encouraging young people to discover their leadership skills. First is the definition of what is successful and inspiring leadership. For many young people, they do not consider themselves leadership material because they are not famous enough or wealthy enough or old enough.

However, through examining the character traits of effective leaders, using real life examples, we identify that the skills of a good leader are those which can be trained and developed – they are not simply based on an individual’s position or celebrity or charisma but instead are focused on serving others and behaving responsibly and consistently. A good example is that of listening skills. Every leader needs to demonstrate that they can fully attend to a colleague’s concerns, reflecting back on what they have heard, and asking clarifying questions to help reach a solution. This is a skill which can be taught and honed amongst young people.

Mosaic runs mentoring programmes for primary schools

Second is the recognition of personal emotional resilience. It is critical to understand that all leaders face difficulties on a daily basis, and that the ability to navigate these with a positive outlook and bounce back from disappointments, brings strength rather than demonstrates failure. We ask young people to recall a time when they have felt particularly under pressure, and to consider how they endured this and who supported them. This has as much relevance for school aged students as it does for those in the work environment, and is certainly a skill that can be developed.

Third, and related to resilience, is the need for leaders to have a network in which they can share resources, continue learning and be open to feedback. The Mosaic International Summit, our international leadership development programme is a great example of this; by bringing together leaders from different backgrounds and perspectives, invaluable exchange of ideas takes place and also, many cross cultural stereotypes and fears are shattered. As one of our alumni said, “there is no source of inspiration greater than a person who has been in the same place you are, yet has surmounted the odds. “

* Alison Bradley is the international director at Mosaic, a charitable initiative of HRH The Prince of Wales. She oversees the leadership development programme, which aims to grow leadership ability in young people and equip them to be a positive part of their communities. Alison has previously worked in a number of organisations which support young people, in the UK and abroad.

“Information about autism is better coming from someone who is autistic”

Simon after winning his award for public speaking on autism from learning disability charity Dimensions

By Simon Smith

My mum and dad realised something was different about me when I was about two to three-years-old, because I played differently to other children. I didn’t engage and interact with others. I didn’t cuddle or give eye contact. I had difficulties with speech and hated change.

I started realising from the age of 14-15 that people were treating me differently and this is when I first realised that I was different. At first I felt kind of annoyed about and wondered why I was getting all the attention. I then asked my mother what was going on with me. She told me I was different to the other kids. First of all she told me all the good things about me; such as my brilliant memory and amazing empathy with animals. She also explained why I was having difficulties in certain areas such as making friends and interacting .

I was diagnosed when I was five. I went to a mainstream school with a statement of special educational needs. At school had I one-to-one support, speech and language therapy. I also attended a behaviour unit and later on had support from the Autistic Spectrum Condition Support Services which came into my school to give advice and support.

Being autistic means I am someone who feels and sees the world in more detail then people without autism. I have heightened senses such as sight, taste, touch ,smell and hearing . This means that I can find things incredibly annoying that wouldn’t bother other people or in some cases it means that I find things more interesting.

Looking back, it was when I started school things became a huge challenge. People often thought I was a trouble-maker (mostly the teachers due to their lack of understanding of my autism and my behaviours). Other students often found me very strange and in some cases would be cruel; bullying me because I was different. Being treated badly by people who didn’t understand me made me very negative about my ambitions and myself which still affects me today. The other thing that makes me different is my obsessions, but I’ve used to help guide me through tough times and they have also created opportunities and brought me success, like the award.

At the moment I have no support except from my parents because the local authority says I don’t meet the criteria.

At the end of last year, I won an Erica Award from learning disability support organisation Dimensions for the talks I do about autism. The annual awards celebrate people with autism who help others. It’s nice to feel appreciated for the hard work I do. I’m very honoured by it and I still can’t believe I won it.

Simon, who loves animals, at home with Rona, the family's dog

My talks came about when my mum was working with pre-school children with autism so when one day she asked for some advice on how to support a child, it made me think back to when I was a child of the same age. I looked back on what made things hard for me and told my mum what it was like from my perceptive. I told mum what it was like for me being autistic and how it affected my everyday life.

My mum said she learnt so much more about autism from me that day that she thought it would be really helpful for other parents. She arranged for me to do a talk to the parents of other children like me.

My talks cover a lot of areas including sensory issues, how my brain works, how I learn to communicate and socialise, my repetition,imitation, obsessions and my behaviour issues. I also offer general advice and strategies to help support people and the opportunity to ask questions. I give out evaluation sheets so people can comment on my talk if they want me to add or change anything.

The feedback is amazing. One parent has written: “I got home yesterday and saw my son from a completely different perspective, thanks to your insight and inside knowledge of autism” and a professional commented: “Simon’s talk was super every trainee teacher/nursery/pre-school worker in the country should meet Simon and hear his experiences. I learnt more in one hour about autism that 20 years as a teacher have ever done. I feel very uplifted and look forward to sharing/reflecting to my colleagues.”

I feel happy that I am going to try and give advice which might help people that I’m talking too. Afterwards I feel mentally tired as it takes a lot out of me and I need feedback from people because I find it hard to tell how well I’ve done.

The feedback from my first talk made me want to help more parents, so my mum asked Amaze – an advice service for parents of children with special needs – if they could help. Through Amaze I did a talk to 27 parents. These parents requested that I spoke to the professionals that they have to deal with because they felt that they were often not listened to. So my mum arranged for me to do talks for professionals such as respite services, PRESENS (Pre-School SEN Services) and two local special schools. I do talks for professional services and parent support groups and have done two workshops at a conference.

It makes me feel uplifted to know how much people appreciate my talks, to be told how much of a difference I am making in helping them to understand more about autism from a personal perspective and this encourages me to do more. I believe that information about autism is better when it comes from someone who is autistic.

My plan is to do more talks and to encourage other people with autism to do them with me and to continue my mentoring. My biggest aim would be to form a group of people with autism who would be confident to be able to attend any meeting regarding anything that might affect people who have autism because I feel it’s very important to have individuals with the problems to speak out and have a voice.

I would like to make councils and governments have someone with the learning disabilities or someone with autism actually on board, attending meetings and giving their own personal input which I think we can all benefit from. If I could get the government to do one thing it would be to consult more with the people that experience the conditions that they are making policies about to get their points of view.

* Simon Smith, 23, from Brighton, won the 2011 Erica Award because of his outstanding contribution to helping others understand what it is like to experience autism.

Shattering UK gangland stereotypes

A powerful image of a black teenager, eyes downcast and his bare arm criss-crossed with knife scars, is among the striking images in a photographic exhibition about the UK’s gangland culture.

The photograph of ex-gang member Jean Claude Dagrou, who was scarred during a fight between rival south London gangs in his late teens, is part of Another Lost Child, which opened at the Photofusion Gallery in Brixton, south London, earlier this month. Read about it in Saba Salman’s Society Guardian piece today.