Category Archives: Mental health

Arts festival uses digital tech for social inclusion

Participants promoting their festival. Photo: Stephen Candy
Participants promoting their festival. Photo: Stephen Candy
A few images here from an innovative digital arts festival due to take place this weekend (10-12 July). The interactive event, which I wrote about today for the Guardian’s online social care pages, will feature giant portraits of learning disabled people projected onto buildings, a game played with an accessible mapping app and an inclusive, high-tech design workshop to re-imagine a town centre.

Creating percussion sounds for the music element of the festival. Photo: Annalees Lim.
Creating percussion sounds for the music element of the festival. Photo: Annalees Lim.
Mixing music for the festival. Photo: Annalees Lim .
Mixing music for the festival. Photo: Annalees Lim .
SprungDigi crew member mixing SprungDigi theme song. Photo: Stephen Candy.
SprungDigi crew member mixing SprungDigi theme song. Photo: Stephen Candy.

People with learning disabilities will help stage the innovative art installations and music and dance performances that they have created alongside digital and community arts practitioners. The inaugural SprungDigi Festival in Horsham, West Sussex, runs from Friday until Sunday.

The name of the free event reflects the concept that digital technology and online activity can be a springboard to social inclusion. The aim is to ensure that people with learning disabilities are more visible and feel more connected to their local areas. Read the rest of the piece here and check this festival page for more information about the weekend.

Employers’ public health role

Working-age ill-health costs the UK economy an annual £100bn, and in a piece for the Guardian online, I give a snapshot of what some employers are doing to improve the health of their staff.

It might be easy to dismiss lunchtime yoga sessions or in-house physio clinics as optional extras (or a “perk”) but the stats on workplace illness suggests a focus on wellbeing makes economic sense. More days are lost through staff sickness in the NHS than elsewhere in the public sector (according to the government’s 2009 Boorman Report) and sick leave costs the health service £1.7bn a year.

Employers are starting to recognise their public health role; almost 400 organisations have, according to latest figures, pledged support for the Department of Health’s public health “responsibility deal”.

You can read the full piece, part of a supplement on physiotherapy, here.

Mental health on TV: entertainment vs realism and sensitivity

If someone’s arm was broken on TV we would see it bandaged up. If someone had diabetes we would see them receiving insulin. If we see someone had a heart condition we would see them wired up to an ECG machine.

So why when we see people displaying symptoms of mental illness do we usually see this depicted as violent or histrionic, with a focus on the challenge and not the solution?

Christmas is next week – a time of year that can brings an unbearable pressure to people with mental health issues. We are all very familiar with seeing mental illness portrayed in cliched, negatively stereotypical ways on our TV screens. The storyline involving the character Steve McDonald’s unfolding depression in the TV ‘soap’ Coronation Street is generating much interest currently .

I am watching closely as this storyline unfolds, not least because we at Time To Change are advising on this to try to ensure as much sensitivity and realism as possible.

Although only in the early stages of the illness, Steve’s behaviour is causing both consternation and confusion for those close to him, and not so close. People are trying to make sense of it all at the moment. Classic symptoms pointing to clinical depression can often be overlooked in the early stages. The programme is cleverly highlighting this and showing the insidious nature of the illness.

I believe it is all around finding the right balance between providing drama for the viewers but also ensuring mental health is not further stigmatised through lazy, damaging scriptwriting. It is a win-win situation for everyone to have mental health storylines depicted with responsibility, authenticity and maturity:
• viewers will gain more awareness of symptoms and treatment
• the programme will receive positive publicity for the research and efforts made
• a powerful anti stigma message will be ultimately delivered.

It is critical to present as authentic a picture of mental health symptoms and treatment as possible to de stigmatise mental illness. The media plays a role that must never be underestimated. It will educate and challenge opinions, it will inform. The viewers opinions and impressions are often influenced by what they see and hear on their TV screens. In advising on the Zak Dingle depression storyline in Emmerdale, I was at pains to reinforce how the illness not only impacts on the sufferer but also the family and significant others.

This is the reality.

The person who is ill does not usually suffer alone, their families/partners have usually cared for them before they seek help and continue to provide care afterwards. I will be watching the Coronation Street storyline to see how those near to Steve are effected by his own deterioration. It must also be realistic in showing the time span of the illness. It would be ludicrous for the viewers to see a decline into severe clinical depression undermined by a miraculous recovery within weeks.

Unfortunately drama that portrays a swift recovery only serves to misinform and mislead. Realism and credibility is then left on the cutting room floor. This is why good research is the key alongside learning the lessons of the past. Lessons need to be learnt and I strongly believe this will be the case in the Coronation Street plot.

Recent research by Time To Change has shown that attitudes are changing as a consequence of responsible media portrayals of mental health. We must not become complacent though and continue to build on the good work so far.

Coronation Street is a very popular soap. Many will be watching for the drama and entertainment element, while others will be scrutinising closely to look for a positive, realistic depiction.

I want these reasons to combine.

I hope nobody is left disappointed or disillusioned. I am excited by this storyline and so should others be. Excited because the storyline will, if successful, leave a seed of hope and a motivation for change in everyone’s minds. That seed will eventually grow into a realisation that when covering the topic of mental health, it is crucial this is responsibly portrayed in the media.

My campaign to change attitudes, one event at a time

We have just ‘celebrated’ World Mental Health day (10 October). I, and many like me, hope that as each year passes so does the stigma and discrimination of mental health. Stigma impacts like a disease – if left untreated, the result is devastating.

Attitudes are certainly changing around mental health, although slowly. As pointed out by Time to Change, the mental health campaign I’m involved in, perceptions are changing. The National Attitudes to Mental Illness survey shows that since 2011, an estimated two million people – or 4.8% of the population – have improved attitudes towards people with a mental illness.
In addition, the data suggests that more people are acknowledging they know someone with a mental health problem (64% in 2013 compared with 58% in 2009). However nearly half (49%) of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable talking to an employer about their own mental health.

Anti stigma work has taken up a large part of my life in psychiatric nursing. And, although it sometimes feels like two steps forward and one back (as the research quoted above hints), the long and winding journey is worth the taking and the rewards are for the benefit of everyone.

I have seen the impact of stigma. I have also felt it. I have seen the destruction it causes people who experience mental illness and their loved ones. This is the motivation for my work.

The recent news about the impact of isolation underlines the need for more work along these lines. Both young people and older folk are affected by severe loneliness.

These issues provided the context for a talk I organised in my childhood village in July, and which I blogged about on these pages.

My talk was about the stigma of mental health and aimed to promote Time To Change. I wanted to raise awareness of the insidious impact of stigma and its long-term damage, and explore how we can all make a difference to the lives of others through our daily interactions. I wanted my message to reach across the village and, more personally, make a mark in the place where I spent my childhood years.

For me going back to my former home, which I left almost 40 years ago, was quite an emotional occasion. It had been the culmination of a life long ambition, a seed borne in childhood that had finally flowered. In the dark corners of my mind has sat the repressed thoughts from childhood of my father’s mental health issues, and the attitudes of others at the time to this.

Assembled in the room of around 50 people were faces from my childhood, alongside faces of the present. An eclectic range of people and experiences, young and old. Friends and family sat beside strangers. I will always be very grateful for the efforts they made to attend and help me to achieve my ambition.

Social contact and interaction is a powerful weapon in challenging ignorance and the myths surrounding mental health. Breaking down the invisible barriers we put up and accepting people as people, rather than defining them by their mental health condition is critical. The two-hour event was informal and interactive thereby providing the ‘safe’ space for those who wished to be open and share their personal experiences, or the experiences of others they hold close.

I started with a mythbusting quiz about mental health to highlight the misconceptions that exist, then spoke about my work in mental health nursing, my anti-stigma initiatives, and also my own experience of depression. I covered my work in the media with the TV soap Emmerdale, advising on the award winning depression storyline of one of the main characters, Zak Dingle.

I stressed it was my hope to encourage the viewers to empathise with Zak’s plight, to see him as being vulnerable and a victim of his circumstances rather than a danger to others, and criminalized

To contrast with this I also explained my advisory role with the character Darrell Makepeace in BBC Radio 4 The Archers. This character had not been received positively by listeners because the producer had decided to criminalise this character. Despite this, I stressed this at the very least ensured people were talking about mental health.

It was a success. I was at pains to ensure it went well because it meant so much to me. I have delivered many talks and presentations previously to large and small audiences but this one was more personal.

Since that summer’s evening I have spoken to people to gauge how things went. Did it make a difference? Has it changed their views? Inspired them? Where do we go from here? The responses have enthused me.

I intend to arrange a follow up event to build on this and plant another seed for the future. A seed for the young people, some who, sadly, will inevitably grow up with the same experiences I had.

Hopefully there will be some changes in attitudes resulting from that evening. It might seem to many just a single, small event, but if it can change just a handful of attitudes and encourage people to talk about mental health, it will be a success. Change drips slowly, but it will come all the same. One day.

Why did the Salvation Army fail to act on my claims of sexual abuse?

A woman who complained 16 years ago of being abused by charity personnel in the 1970s now wants an inquiry:

The Salvation Army failed to investigate allegations of historical child abuse, according to a woman who told the charity 16 years ago that four of its members had sexually assaulted her in the 1970s.

In 1998, Lucy Taylor (not her real name) told the Salvation Army that four men at her local branch of the charity in the north of England had abused her. Her story suggests she was groomed from the age of 10, assaulted from 12 years old and the abuse continued for eight years until she left the organisation.

Taylor says her complaints were not handled seriously either at the local branch, known as a “citadel”, which was at the centre of her allegations, or at the national headquarters in London. When she later approached police, an investigation resulted in two of the four men being arrested on suspicion of indecent assault. They were later released without charge. For legal reasons the Guardian cannot name the alleged victim, now in her 50s, or the men.

Taylor says: “I want somebody to take me seriously – listen to my problem and help me sort this out”. She adds of her alleged abusers: “I just want them to realise what they’ve done to me [but] part of me doesn’t, part of me doesn’t want them to know how it’s upset me and ruined my life.” Read the rest of my interview and report on the Guardian website.

Campaigning in my community for mental health

Each time I return to my childhood village the memories come flooding back.

Memories of football in the street and endless walks along rugged cliffs that are some of the highest in the country. A sense of innocence from another era now gone forever.

My native town is Staithes, a small fishing village nestling beneath cliffs on the north Yorkshire coast. A tourist attraction in summer, Staithes is synonymous with Captain James Cook who worked and lived there prior to setting sail to discover Australia.

My childhood growing up in the village was mostly uneventful but rocked by my parents’ separation and my father’s mental health issues. Mental illness was very much misunderstood in the village and this was no different to any other village in England at that time.

Over 50 years later, and nearer to the grave than the cradle, I now want to return to my roots to try to bring about change, however small, around attitudes to mental health. I want to raise awareness in the village of the stigma of mental health and how it impacts on the sufferer and their families. A stigma as dangerous as the high cliffs I would climb as a child and the raging sea that batters the village in winter.

Stigma and discrimination of mental illness exists in all villages and towns. Time To Change, England’s largest mental health anti-stigma programme seeks to change all that. I volunteer for Time To Change and use my qualified psychiatric nurse knowledge and and personal ‘lived experience’ to try to bring about more awareness, understanding and tolerance of mental health.

I feel confident that the event next Thursday (24 July) will be successful. Why? A sense of community exists to this day in Staithes, which I believe is part of being from North Yorkshire and who we are as a people. A down to earth friendliness, community spirit, and willingness to help others in time of need.

What I have organised is an informal evening in the village hall to raise awareness, educate, and de- mystify some of the negative and damaging misconceptions of mental health; SOS Staithes Opposes Stigma of mental health (the title “SOS” reflects the international distress signal ‘Save Our Souls’ which the village, a once thriving port, uses so I thought that would be an apt title).

I will also talk about my advisory work with Steve Halliwell, who played the character Zak Dingle in the television soap Emmerdale , to help craft the award winning depression storyline. This was done with the aim of making mental health depictions on TV more realistic and sensitive. People here in identify with Zak Dingle as the programme is Yorkshire-based.

So far the response to my evening event has been very positive. I have visited the village and left posters everywhere. I have spoken to some people I already knew and strangers who I can now call friends. They have been very open and honest about their own mental health issues or spoke of people they know and care for. This has enthused me all the more. I appreciate their being so open and trusting very much.

I wish I had possessed the same feelings of acceptance, understanding, and trust all those years ago as a child around my fathers illness. Small rural communities such as this are more isolated than the larger towns and cities and as a consequence people are often left feeling more alienated and lacking support. I often say as a child I did not understand the word stigma but I certainly knew how it felt.

My aim is simple. I would like the people in the village to be more aware of mental health issues and how mental illness it is indiscriminate. How it effects one in four of the population and that nobody is immune.

I would like the young people to see me as a positive role model and for them to be influenced to try to bring about change themselves in whatever way they can. I would like everyone to understand that Time To Change is a social movement for change and they can all play a part, no matter how small, in this ground breaking campaign.

The young people are the future of the village. They can all make a difference to the villagers of tomorrow as well as today by their words and their actions.

• SOS: STAITHES OPPOSES STIGMA of mental health. Thursday 24th July 7 – 9pm held in Staithes village hall – An informal evening of interaction and discussion around mental health. Free entry by ticket. Refreshments available and free promotional Time To Change materials. Tickets from Lol Butterfield on 07958064025, Veronica Foster on 07891607786 or members of the village hall committee.

Telling the untold stories of austerity


Women in Croxteth, Liverpool, discuss the impact of cuts on communities, part of the research for the new book, Austerity Bites

Do you know what austerity really means?

Here’s a definition from the Collins Dictionary, as quoted in Mary O’Hara’s commanding new book on the subject, Austerity Bites: “…difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce the budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure: a period of austerity/austerity measures.”

But that literal definition, and the words of politicians using the rhetoric of austerity to mask the harsh impact of public spending cuts, conveys nothing of the human cost of the unprecedented reform of the welfare state.

Austerity Bites redresses that imbalance. I don’t usually do reviews on this site, but this timely book demands attention.

Reading this book means you join the award-winning journalist O’Hara in her “journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK”. Based on a 12-month trip around the country meeting diverse people affected by cuts as reforms were introduced in 2012 and 2013, O’Hara gives a platform to untold stories of hardship.

O’Hara’s book suggests, “austerity” has become an acceptable rhetoric, one that glosses over the harsh impact of welfare reform – as in “cuts hurt but in the age of austerity, what else can we do?” The creeping normalisation of food poverty and food banks, as explored in this book, is shameful.

While an intricate explanation is given of the political and economic context, it is the lives of those whose voices are rarely given a platform – the homeless, the disabled, the young among them – that are the focus here.

Crisscrossing the country, the picture is one of political classes living in a “bubble” untouched by the harsh reality of life on the front line of Austerity UK; a massive chasm between the people suffering from the impact of cuts and abolition of vital benefits and the people making the decisions to abolish that support.

People talk of “breaking point”, “existing not living”, their “desperate situation”; the book does much to explode the myth of benefit Britain. A fairly comprehensive catalogue of unfairness is chronicled in Austerity Bites – the disabled, for example, are shown to be bearing the brunt of cuts, the vulnerable are made more vulnerable and the poorer become poorer.

As one man, Dec, who O’Hara meets on a Luton estate tells the author: “Do I deserve better? Do other people deserve better? I think they do.”

Unsettling, but vital, reading, this book lays bare the real, true story of austerity.

Storytelling for people with learning disabilities: ‘We just natter away’

Lisa Johnson of the writing group Story Balloons (pic: Jonathan Raimondi)
Lisa Johnson of the writing group Story Balloons (pic: Jonathan Raimondi)
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Lisa Johnson is a writer. The 30-year-old from Sheffield recently had a book published, a collection of poems, songs and stories put together with fellow authors from her writing collective. Today she will take part in a workshop in her home city, explaining the creative process and encouraging others to write.

She says of Story Balloons, her weekly writing group: “It is something I look forward to.” Uptown Boy, her poem about love, she adds, makes her feel “very happy”. “I always wanted to write,’ she says, adding that writing has changed her: “I feel more confident, proud of what I’ve achieved.”

Story Balloons helps counter stereotypes and improve confidence, and has led to a published book – read more in my piece in the Guardian

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

Radio raises awareness: The Archers mental health storyline

I recall listening to Radio 4’s The Archers as a teenager on long hot summer afternoons; the “heatwave” summer of 1976 springs to mind. As with listening to cricket, the radio soap helped me to relax and I warmed to its quaint and easy listening style. I would not have envisaged all these years later that I would be involved with the programme – and with such a controversial storyline.

I’ve been advising The Archers on the storyline about the depression experienced by the character Darrell Makepeace. The Archers is moving with the times. It remains a quintessentially English portrayal of village life, but also has to echo the modern age and remain current. Just yesterday, new figures were published on use of the Mental Health Act in England, showing that the number of detentions, which has increased by 12 per cent in the last five years, exceeded 50,000 in 2012/13.

Controversial, contemporary plotlines will appeal to the listeners, but Radio 4 must get the balance right by keeping its traditional support base whilst acquiring a younger audience. The Archers is the world’s longest running radio soap opera and the station’s most popular non-news show with more than 5 million listeners.

With this in mind, I began offering advice on the character Darrell and his spiralling fall into depression about three months ago. As part of the Time To Change media advisory service, my role was to try to add as much realism and sensitivity to his presentation. This differed so much from my previous advisory role for the character Zak Dingle in the soap Emmerdale. Why is this so?

Well, Darrell is a character who has hit rock bottom and, in doing this, has not only caused much pain to himself but also to those around him. Chaotic and unpredictable would be just two words to describe this. He is also very manipulative. The Archers’ listeners appear divided in their opinions about this. I remain very enthused that we have highlighted the devastation of depression, its indiscriminate nature, and the “loose cannon” impact.

Emmerdale’s Zak endeared himself to the viewers as he was deemed a “loveable rogue” The fans empathised with his plight. But Darrell is not so endearing and his manipulative behaviour has only served to isolate him from most fans.

Therein lies the challenge for me, and the producers themselves – to promote more understanding and acceptance of mental illhealth, and its indiscriminate nature. I received praise and criticism – in equal measure – from listeners, and that’s fine. I no longer lose sleep at night worrying about criticism; it opens up a debate and encourages more dialogue around mental health that so far there is a reluctance to do.

This work is challenging because, by my very nature, I am a sensitive person. I have had to grow a thicker skin since to take the blows but the praising comments helps to ease the pain. The criticism at times to my role and advice taken has been quite personal, but I can only give advice from my own perspective.

I have a passion to promote more understanding of mental health and eradicate stigma from society. I hope The Archers’ storyline will help transform people’s attitudes to mental health.

* The first national Time to Talk Day takes place on 6 February, aiming to spark a million conversations about mental health. Part of Time to Change, it highlights how little things – sending a text, a chat over a cup of tea- can make a big difference to someone with mental health problems.