Category Archives: Bullying

Men and mental health

As a qualified nurse I have seen at first hand the impact of bullying on a person’s self esteem and self worth. I have seen people self harm – colleagues and staff – and lost friends through suicide. I never become desensitised to this and hope I never will.

Although as a nurse I have to be dispassionate it is never easy to not ask myself could more have been done? Should more have been done? The nurse has feelings too. My lifetime’s work as a mental nurse has not only been confined to the hospital.

Many years ago I realised that my work needed to reach out to all areas of society if real change was to happen. Over the past 10 years I have spread the anti bullying message through the media, and promoted more understanding of mental health.

I have used my clinical knowledge and personal “lived experience” to de-stigmatise mental illness and encourage people to be more open and seek help at the earliest opportunity. This is particularly pertinent with young men who are statistically half less likely to visit their GPs for mental health concerns than women. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse, drugs, self harm and suicide is often the ‘coping’ mechanism of men to mental illness. Many are in denial and this denial can often be fatal.

It is with this in mind that I have tried to creatively tackle stigma and discrimination away from the usual clinical set up. To normalise mental health is to eradicate the myths and bring it out from the inner walls of the percieved ‘asylum’ It is all about encouraging people to view mental health as being no different to physical health, both sides of the same coin so to speak. More importantly neither working as effectively without the other, each influencing the other.

A long time ago I realised the power of the media to inform and form opinions, and challenge damaging stereotypes. I decided to focus my mental health anti stigma approach on tv, radio and in the newspapers. I advised the Zak Dingle ‘depression’ storyline in the TV soap opera Emmerdale to try to bring as much realism and sensitivity to the role as possible.

This work was well received by the viewers, yet there were still people who criticised me online, so called ‘keyboard warriors’ who challenged my views and questioned my knowledge and nursing experience. I had to quickly develop a thicker skin and told myself that even if people are critical, even if they are dismissive of what I do, at least it is encouraging discussion of mental health. it is bringing the subject into the open which is required to break down the myths and misconceptions. Often the criticism echoes people’s own inner fears about opening up. It is a struggle for them to acknowledge their own mental health immunity, especially in my own profession, particularly amongst men.

In spreading the anti-stigma message I have found myself in a range of diverse places. From the Houses of Parliament, universities and colleges across the country to the social clubs of the industrial north east where I live. The places may be different but the message remains the same. I have worked with scholars and gangsters, actors and musicians, writers and poets. Mental illness does not discriminate and any one of us could be the next victim. It does not respect sexual gender, social class, religion, ethnicity or culture. This is why my work has to reach out to all areas of society if it is to make a difference.

I am now liasing with the former MMA fighter Alex Reid to explore writing a book to reach out to men. Alex has also been on the receiving end of bullying through the media and we both share a passion to positively promote healthy mental and physical health. Maybe combining our life experiences will touch a chord with men? We are poles apart and yet we are so alike. We have both experienced bullying and both share a desire and determination to help others.

Alex’s world of MMA fighting attracts the kind of man I am trying to reach out to with my message. Men who dismiss mental illness or stress as being anathema to them and only affecting women. Physical strength and a ‘macho’ attitude to life is no defence against mental illness. I see a strength in men sharing their emotions and opening up about their feelings.

My own world of mental health nursing includes many men who are in denial of their own feelings and whose ‘big boys don’t cry’ outlook on life serves to perpetuate the stigma and misunderstanding of mental health even more.

New report demands more support for vulnerable children

Families at a Spurgeons’ children’s centre, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire (photo: Bronac McNeill)
Guest post by Ross Hendry, chief executive of Spurgeons Children’s Charity

New research, which we launch today, paints a picture of far too many young families struggling.

Parents with children under the age of 18 are increasingly anxious, according to Spurgeons’ Parent Report, and many feel that there is little support available.

The research shows half of parents worry their children have low self-esteem or are unhappy (46%) or are being bullied (46%)*; whilst 42% of parents think there is little to no support available from statutory, community or voluntary services to help with family challenges.

And it is many of the most vulnerable who are struggling the most. The ones who cannot or do not have a strong, stable and supportive network of family and friends to turn to. These are the families we work with, day in, day out – their children are among the 4 million living in poverty in the UK today. They are the families for whom support seems very distant and hard to attain just when their needs seem to be increasing.

What’s important is that families get the support they need when they need it. And that’s where charities like ours come in. Spurgeons Children’s Charity is driven by its mission to improve the lives of families and children who are struggling to cope; and to see every child given the chance of a hope filled future.

It is 150 years since we were first founded, but we still work at the heart of communities to improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children and families in England. Our focus is supporting families who struggle to support themselves through intervention and help that centres on the child.

The reality is, despite the immense wealth and opportunities for social mobility, life for some families is as tough today as it was when we were first established. Inequality today may look different; we may know more about causes and solutions; we may spend more time talking and writing about it; but it is still an enduring social and economic scar on our society.

We offer a range of different services across the country. For example, our 23 children’s centres support parents with young children to access the help they need, ensuring poverty and deprivation don’t become barriers to a better future. We work with local partners in communities with high levels of deprivation across the UK, supporting parents and their children from pre-natal stage up to the age of five.

When parents need to develop new strategies for dealing with issues; or they feel they maybe aren’t coping as well as they could, our support worker teams are there. Sometimes just to listen; but often to provide practical support and advice too. There are a range of parenting courses; opportunities to stay and play and a chance to meet and talk with other parents.

The chance to access peer to peer support can be invaluable and a life line for many parents who often feel alone. This is true for both mums and dads and we’re keen to recognise the important roles fathers play in their children’s lives. Our Saturdads project, which started in 2009 and worked with 89 dads last year alone, helps fathers develop stronger, positive relationships; build peer support networks; and generally build their confidence as a parent. Too often public funded services are portrayed as places of dependency when the reality is a timely intervention can be the route to flourishing, maturity and development for parents and children.

Spurgeons works to support families (photo: Bronac McNeill)

The Parent Report we publish today gives us an opportunity to compare the views of the wider parent population to our own insight. From parent feedback at our services, through to safeguarding reporting, we are able to draw out comparisons and identity some common themes. What we do know from the work taking place is that it’s not always easy for families to reach out.

All too often, parents are afraid to engage. For whatever reason, whether its concern over how they will be perceived, or feeling like they have somehow failed, we’re often the last place they turn. It’s not uncommon for us to be told by parents that they wished they’d reached out sooner. But the question we need to ask is ‘why aren’t they?’

We need our services, and those offered by others like us – from government, charities, schools and GPs – to be recognised as the safe and reassuring places we believe them to be. Where parents can take their children and be free from judgement at a time in their life when they need it most.

It’s only fair that we all accept some responsibility with this – if parents don’t feel that they can access the support available, what can we do differently to help them on their way? More awareness maybe; more accessibility for the isolated and hard to reach groups most definitely; but maybe it’s more than that.

In a world where they are so many expectations and pressures, living up to a perfect ideal can make a tough job even harder. From our part, we want to ensure there is always someone there to support families – especially those in greatest need – with good information, advice and meaningful support.

About the research
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,842 GB parents with children under 18 years of age. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21st – 27 April 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
* When asked about the three issues they are most concerned about for their children, either now or in the future.

Campaigner Jonathan Andrews on the talents and skills of autistic people

Jonathan Andrews was once advised to hide his autism from prospective employers. Instead, he is making his name by doing just the opposite.

The 22-year-old recently won campaigner of the year at the European Diversity Awards 2016 and talked to me about his work for a Guardian interview.

He’s involved in a plethora of awareness-raising projects, including sitting on the first parliamentary commission on autism. He also advised the government on its green paper on work, health and employment, which is out to consultation until later this month.

The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.

He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”

An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”

What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.

He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”

He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”

In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.

The full interview is here.
You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonnyJAndrews

People with learning disabilities are not scroungers or superheroes

The MBE recently won by Shaun Webster is, he says “two fingers” to the bullying colleagues who tormented him when he worked in a warehouse some years ago.

You can’t disagree with the 43-year-old’s use of frank language – his deeply unpleasant workmates once used sticky tape to bind Webster, who has a learning disability, and stuffed a rag in his mouth. This was done “as a joke”, he recalls in an interview I did for today’s Guardian. Little wonder he has devoted his life since then to fighting for inclusion and equality.

As explained in today’s piece, the international project worker for Leeds-based human rights charity Change is a sought-after speaker and trainer in the UK and overseas. His work includes advising government departments about inclusive employment, promoting access to sex and health education for learning disabled people and recent visits to Thailand and Croatia to train health, social care and charity professionals about independent living and disability rights.

Shaun talks passionately and persuasively about issues like employment rights and independent living for people with learning disabilities, making the point (usually missed by policy makers and politicians) that the two issues must be seen together; earning your own money and having a role and responsibility supports independence.

Shaun’s current work involves a partnership with children’s charity Lumos, supporting young people to leave institutions and gain independence, choice and control. Linked to that piece of work is the report Shaun wrote, Leaving Institutions, a really great example of a publication written with a clear focus on people (not targets or statistics, or a homogeneous mass) by authors who truly know about and have experience of what they’re talking about.

The entire interview can be read here and the film below is worth a watch too:

Poor care for people with learning disabilities

Robin Kitt Callender who died after missed opportunities to save her life (pic: Callender family)
Robin Kitt Callender who died after missed opportunities to save her life (pic: Callender family)

By the time Robin Kitt Callender died, she had endured eight weeks of intermittent vomiting and diarrhoea, and her weight had fallen to five stone. In the four months before she collapsed at her Essex care home, the 53-year-old had visited her GP six times and A&E twice, but her inflammatory bowel disease remained undiagnosed.

Callender, who was severely autistic and partially sighted, with communication difficulties, died on 23 May 2012, less than 24 hours after finally being admitted to hospital.

An inquest last week concluded that she died from natural causes contributed to by neglect, with failings by her GP and hospital staff and missed opportunities to save her. Care home staff took her to the doctor, but failed to tell her sister (who usually accompanied her to medical appointments) of the severe symptoms until the day before she died.

There are 1,200 avoidable deaths of learning-disabled people in the NHS every year, according to Mencap’s research into “death by indifference”. A government-commissioned confidential inquiry into the premature deaths of people with a learning disability found that, on average, people die 16 years sooner than in the general population, with many deaths avoidable.

Among the families seeking answers and lobbying for change is that of Connor Sparrowhawk. Two years ago this month, the 18-year-old, who had a learning disability and epilepsy, was admitted to a specialist NHS inpatient unit in Oxford and drowned in the bath less than four months later. His preventable death led to the Justice for LB campaign and an inquest is due this summer.

The circumstances in the cases of Sparrowhawk and Callender are very different, but the principle is the same: people with a learning disability are dying because they do not receive the same quality of care as other people.

There’s more of my piece in The Guardian.

The hidden victims of domestic violence

Beverley Lewis House is the only refuge in the UK that caters for women who have learning disabilities. Photograph: Beverley Lewis House
Beverley Lewis House is the only refuge in the UK that caters for women who have learning disabilities. Photograph: Beverley Lewis House

Barbara Davis’s abusive boyfriend burned her fingers on the stove when he discovered her packed suitcase under the bed and realised she was trying to leave. He had controlled Davis, 36, who has a mild learning disability, for years. He isolated her from family and friends, verbally abusing her parents until they stopped visiting. He locked her in the privately rented London flat they shared, goading her to kill herself. She recalls: “He told me to strangle myself with a wire … he wanted me to die.”

Davis (who eventually escaped) told her story to researchers from the Tizard Centre as part of a project to explores the experiences women with learning disabilities who suffer domestic violence. The work, which also looks at the attitudes and practices of professionals who support such women, is featured in my Guardian piece.

There are some shocking – although perhaps not surprising (given the low profile of learning disability as an issue) – facts included in the piece. Among them, that the UK has just one specialist domestic violence refuge for women with learning disabilities. What’s more, most police officers (often the first point of contact in a domestic abuse incident) do not believe that a learning disability makes women more vulnerable to domestic violence.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

The Tizard Centre project can be accessed here and information on Beverley Lewis House here.

Why is it OK for politicians to ignore people with learning disabilities?

More than one million people with learning disabilities are eligible to vote – so why are they ignored by politicians?

My interview with Gary Bourlet in today’s Guardian explains how the veteran disability campaigner wants to give people like himself, with learning disabilities, a greater voice and presence so they feature in places other than “secret footage on Panorama”, referring to Winterbourne View, where the abuse of patients with learning disabilities was exposed by the BBC in 2011. To this end, he has set up People First England, to encourage adults with learning disabilities, rather than care professionals, to participate in politics and appear on TV and radio discussing stories that affect them.

“We want people speaking for themselves about issues that concern them, rather than the professionals,” he says. “We want greater powers to be seen, to vote, to be included, have the same opportunities in social life, education and employment as everyone else.” Bourlet, 55, has launched the user-led charity with disability rights activist Kaliya Franklin.

You can read the rest of the piece here while my post from yesterday adds some more context to Bourlet’s message.

Investigation into bullying at special school sparks questions for Winterbourne improvement scheme

Fresh questions are being asked about the government’s beleaguered post-Winterbourne drive to improve care for learning disabled people. An investigation is underway into “bullying accusations” at a special school run by a charity whose chief executive is trying to reinvigorate the flagging £2.86m government improvement scheme.

Bill Mumford, chief executive of MacIntyre which runs Womaston School and Children’s Home in Wales, offered to stand down as director of the Winterbourne improvement programme after allegations of mistreatment at Womaston. The government programme launched after the abuse of learning disabled patients at the Winterbourne View privately run unit in south Gloucestershire, abuse that was exposed by BBC’s Panorama in 2011. It aims to move individuals out of institutional, large-scale, long-stay units and into community-based accommodation.

Concerns about the behaviour of some staff towards children at MacIntyre’s specialist residential service were reported by a member of staff to the school principal in March and police and social services are investigating the claims. The school, home to students aged aged 10-19 with autism, complex behavioural needs and learning disabilities, will close in July with the young people moved to alternative placements. Staff have been suspended, other staff drafted in and, says MacIntyre in a statement, “the alleged behaviours are not occurring in the service now”.

The investigation into Womaston is expected to last several months and there are no more details about what the allegations involve. A BBC online story refers to “physical abuse”, a statement from MacIntyre describes “concerns” about the “behaviour of some other staff members” while a personal statement from Mumford mentions “a small group of my staff…suspended following accusations of bullying”.

The incident has sparked fresh criticism of the Winterbourne programme run jointly by the Local Government Association and NHS England. It aimed to move everyone out of such assessment and treatment units by 1 June 2014 but after little progress (3,250 people with learning disabilities and autism are still in private or NHS-run settings like Winterbourne View), its previous heads left and Mumford took over in January, on secondment from MacIntyre. New NHS figures show only 256 out of 2,615 in-patitents with learning disabilities or autism have dates for transfer into community settings and more are being admitted to NHS settings than moved out.

The death of Connor Sparrowhawk recently reignited debate about the use of such units that cost around £3,500 per person per week and leave people at serious risk of neglect and abuse.

Mumford has issued a personal statement “re the investigation at MacIntyre and my continuing role in support of the Winterbourne prog” (that’s a statement taken from Twitter). In it, he accepts concerns that while he is charged with a national role to improve the care and support of learning disabled people, employees of the organisation he presides over were carrying out exactly kind of behaviour he’s trying to stamp out. He also addresses the fact the drive has been less than successful.

He says in his statement (the square brackets are mine): “It is a very real concern to me and the [Winterbourne improvement programme] partners that the trauma experienced by individuals and families at Winterbourne View and elsewhere should not be exacerbated by the thought that the person responsible for the programme [is] being tainted with serious problems in his own organisation. Indeed it is the unacceptable stories of individuals and families that motivate and challenge us all to step up and do better. Therefore my second decision was to contact the Joint Improvement Partners, including personal phone calls to the representatives of people with learning disabilities and families, to inform them of the situation and offered to voluntarily step down. This couldn’t come at a worse time for the programme partners as it is well know[n] that complexity of achieving the original concordat commitments has been a struggle.”

The MacIntyre chief executive adds that the charity took immediate action: “There has been no cover up, no prior issues of this nature have been raised before and the families and placing local authorities and alerting member of staff are all completely satisfied with MacIntyre’s actions to date. Therefore MacIntyre is dealing with a very serious situation exactly as they should – it is an example of how things should happen and maybe this is an important lesson for the programme to share.”

While the investigation by Powys social services and police continues, Mumford says he is “not only restricted about what I can say but actually what I know. However as soon as it is completed I will share what we have learnt regardless of how painful that might be.”

Discussion (so far mainly on social media) involves support for Mumford and the Winterbourne programme’s aims as well as criticism about why a statement was only made public this morning and why there was not more immediate public transparency after the claims were lodged with the relevant authorities.

*This post was updated this evening in an attempt to clarify “bullying accusations” and add figures and links relating to the number of in-patients with learning disabilities.

Charity helpline supports abuse victims with learning disabilities

If Simon Tovey gets anxious before using the bathroom, you might assume his panic is linked to his learning disability. Maybe the public convenience is unfamiliar?

Yet Tovey’s fear is the result of the abuse he suffered at Winterbourne View assessment and treatment unit. He featured in the 2011 Panorama expose of the privately run unit near Bristol where he was kicked, punched, verbally tormented – and threatened with having his head put down the toilet.

Tovey’s mother, Ann Earley, says of her son, 40: “The Simon that returned to us was not the same one who left. He was profoundly affected and unable to put into words how he felt. He has a long-term fear of toilets – that’s just one small thing. The other impact is incalculable, like his fear about what’s going to happen next.”

Three years on from the Winterborne View scandal, the effect on residents has been huge – but a specialist helpline offers support for them and their families. Read the rest of my piece on the work of the charity Respond on the Guardian’s social care network.

Ann Earley and her son Simon, who was abused at Winterbourne View specialist unit in 2011
Ann Earley and her son Simon, who was abused at Winterbourne View specialist unit in 2011

Social networks and mental health: supportive environment or a stalking ground for cyber-bullies?

Bullying crushes a child’s self esteem and confidence. It can leave a child feeling alone, totally helpless, and with no one to turn to. In their childhood innocence and naivety some even blame themselves for their torment. Many schools now have robust anti bullying policies in the form of bullying charters.

We live in an age where teachers acknowledge widely the emotional needs of children more than ever before. Resources such as SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) provide increased emotional support in many schools.

As a consequence bullying has now left many classrooms, but not all. This is commendable but, not only do schools’ attitudes and actions in response to bullying vary considerably, is it enough?

And now in the age social networking sites it has insidiously entered the sanctuary of children’s bedrooms. Running away from the school environment and threatening bullies now leads straight to the bedroom, a once safe haven where a child’s computer suddenly provides no way of escape. Computers are the contemporary child’s toy and some may say the innocence of youth has died as a result. This year’s forthcoming Anti-bullying Week, for example, has a special focus on cyber-bullying.

These issues have been on my mind since the death of 14-year-old Hannah Smith who suffered relentless bullying online. Her death was not a stark reminder of how vulnerable our children are not protected from bullies even in the supposed safety of their own homes. There has been intense speculation and much knee-jerking as a result of her death, but the bottom line is that social media played a part in her suicide. Whatever happened, she was a vulnerable child.

But social networking sites can be so liberating for many providing an outlet for those who lack self confidence in face to face interactions and who might have smaller social networks than usual. Many can make friends and form relationships online that they would otherwise struggle to in school.

These sites can be very helpful, especially for those who lack social contact, or may have poor social skills, agoraphobia etc, but the flip side of the coin is the bullying issue. Reaching an acceptable compromise regarding social networking will not be easy because the genie has now been let out of the box, so to speak.

When experiencing low moods, your reality becomes alien to that of everyone else. I have always advised people to seek help at the earliest opportunity to prevent depression reaching this critical stage. And this is where social sites that support mental health can help.

There is the social site launched by comedian Ruby Wax, for example, Black Dog Tribe, “a place in which like-minded people can find their own ‘tribe’ and share experiences in a supportive online community through forums, blogs, daily news and mental health information”. Another example is Kent and Medway NHS Trust, for example, which is piloting Buddy, an online system that records mood changes. And there are a raft of support-specific online forums linked to various charities and support groups which can make all the difference to vulnerable people.

This is the positive aspect of these sites.

Yet it is too simplistic an argument that social media and networks alone can help prevent depression. An holistic approach can include talking therapies, physical exercise and medication, if appropriate. These therapies can support each other – medication, as I know from personal experience and from my nursing career, has its down side. It can also make your mood fluctuate wildly, become disinhibited and even suicidal. Having easy access to online support can, at times like this, be vital. These issues are brought into sharp focus by the news today that the number of people needing treatment for mental health issues will have increased by more than 2 million by 2030.

We should look closely at both the negatives and positives about social media and networks in relation to mental health – and ignore them at our peril. While it is also wrong to assume that social media alone can push someone towards mental health problems, excessive use of social sites, as is often reported, can itself lead to problems.

Children sitting for hours in front of a screen removes them from the social contact of others that will improve their face to face communication skills and confidence in later life. Effective communication involves eye contact, body language, and gesturing. All ignored when lying in bed hitting a keyboard in silent and lonely surroundings.

Cyber bullies and unpoliced social media sites populated by children (or those posing as children) are not part of a civilised society. We must make it all stop. Now.