Category Archives: Mental health

Why I always had time for George: older people and mental health

I’m walking across the grounds of the psychiatric hospital on a very wet winter evening and a patient, let’s call him George, steps out from behind a bush to talk to me. He needs to tell me something that he feels is important and can’t wait.

We both stand for quite a while talking (he’s a staunch socialist and wants to talk politics) and both get soaked to the skin. I think to myself that it’s more respectful to hear what he wants to say then hurry on and seek shelter. As we eventually walk back to the ward together, he is calmer, seemingly content to have got his feelings off his chest.

This scene took place more than 20 years ago (I mention it in my book, Sticks and Stones) but I believe now what I thought then, that my exchange with George is what real empathy is all about. It’s what being non-judgmental is about, what being human is about, what being a nurse is about.

I have nursed enough people during my time as a mental health nurse to understand that life is a bit of a lottery. I have seen the elderly lose their dignity in nursing homes and in hospitals. This is not always through dementia. This could be depression or psychosis, or other debilitating illnesses depriving them of their confidence, self worth, and esteem.

But as the recent figures about suicide rates rising among the elderly show, mental health issues may be overlooked in older people as society mistakenly presumes dementia is the only condition older people experience. Another assumption is that depression is a normal part of ageing, because the elderly have more of a sense of their own mortality.

I hope that whatever befalls me in my old age I am shown the same respect and compassion as I believe I have shown others. There’s often a failure of respect not just because of deliberate neglect or a lack of compassion, but through ignorance – through not treating people as individuals or not meeting their emotional needs.

So how do we prevent this? Essentially it is around searching for the person behind the illness and stepping back for a second and thinking “how would I like to be treated if this was me?” or “would I like to be looked after in this environment?”

Of course I’m not arguing against the completion of care plans, but I do worry that the increasing onus on form-filling and box-ticking can deny care staff more time to spend with those they support. A care professional might be spending hours on admin, or typing up a care plan – but how does the person in their care know this is part of them being cared for? They’d rather have our face-to-face time I’m sure.

Person-centred care, as the name suggests, is meant to put the client at the heart of the care planning process. This care is collaborative and negotiated with the client (theoretically). However, often when someone is acutely psychotic and lacks all insight, nurses then become the advocate and the care must be planned depending on what is required to get the person well again. As for personalisation and personal budgets, the take up is sadly not as high as it should be; people worry about risk management and general funding pressures that can put people off.

Compared to when I was in a clinical setting, today’s care world involves a far more litigation and risk-averse culture which takes staff away from the client. At the time I knew George, I could spend longer in one to one sessions with clients, so could my colleagues, but more often than not, today’s staff are only allocated a set amount of time each shift to spend in one to one, face to face therapeutic sessions on the wards.

Staff cutbacks on the wards and in the community will also reduce the time staff can spend with clients in face to face interventions. However staff should still show empathy and be non judgmental in all approaches, because this is the essence of their roles.

Clearly, organisations promoting older people’s issues have a role to play in raising awareness and educating. We stigmatise the elderly as much as we stigmatise the young people, so we need more positive promotion of what the elderly can offer society. Countries like China and Japan, for example, revere the elderly and yet in this country I think some people view them as an afterthought, a burden.

The hospital where I met George has long since been converted into a block of expensive flats while the man himself, already in his 80s when we had that long rainy chat, will have passed away many years ago. But the memory of that evening stays with me as a reminder of the underlying principle of care as I see it; listening to, respecting and having the individual – not “the system” – as your main focus.

Art fights social taboos

Living with chronic health problems and facing social taboos are issues at the heart of an international artistic collaboration about HIV/AIDS as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Portrait by Rachel Gadsen © Rachel Gadsden

© Rachel Gadsden

The powerful images here are part of the Unlimited Global Alchemy project
which launches today as part of the London 2012 Festival. After today’s launch at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge, the exhibition culminates at the Southbank Centre during the Paralympic Games.

The project has been produced by Artsadmin and commissioned by the Unlimited programme launched to celebrate arts, culture and sport by deaf and disabled people.

© Rachel Gadsden

Artist Rachel Gadsden, who has lived with disability all her life and whose inspiring work I came across last year, began the project after seeing the work of South African artist Nondumiso Hlwele at the museum in Cambridge – Body Map, below, reflects Hlwele’s experience of living with HIV.

Body Map © Nondumiso Hlwele

Gadsen travelled to the Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town, pictured below, to collaborate with the artist-activist collective which Hlwele leads. The works in today’s exhibition were created over a six week residency in Cape Town in October last year.

Khayelitsha township where today's works were developed

Together, the striking pieces show what it’s like to live with disabling conditions and social prejudice. “At the heart of this life-affirming and timely collaboration is a celebration of survival against the odds,” say the artists. “It is also about access to art in a very broad sense, participation, and the potential for bridges to be built across cultural, educational and geographical divides.”

You can follow the project on Twitter with the hashtag 
#UGAlchemy and the exhibition is at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge until 18 August before it transfers to the Southbank Centre, London in September as part of the Unlimited Festival. There will also be a collaborative performance work once the project transfers to the Southbank.

How I fell back in love with learning

The recent Mental Health Awareness Week made me reflect on my experience of mental health problems and how studying is helping me – hopefully – recover.

Recovery from a mental health problem is rarely easy and, in my opinion, highly subjective. Medication may form part of a person’s recovery but those little green and white capsules aren’t the magic “happy pills” you may have envisaged and sometimes the first step is simply trying to access the right help and support to manage your symptoms.

While I’m dubious as to whether I’ll ever fully recover in the medical sense – complete absence of symptoms – by understanding myself and my condition better and am slowly learning what may help alleviate the impact depression and anxiety has on my life.

Last year I began studying with the Open University (OU), a short science course on particle physics which did not require me to leave the house or interact with anybody face to face; my idea of heaven. One of my issues is severe anxiety triggered by social situations, when I’m at my worst I am unable to leave the house for fear of seeing another human being and becoming paranoid, agitated and having to run away.

I’m 23 now and left school with five GCSEs at the age of 16, since then I’ve been in and out of college and university, believing if I was strong enough I could “get over” my mental health problems and fit in with my peers. Unfortunately being in a classroom inevitably triggered my anxiety due in part to bullying in high school which I’ve struggled to recover from.

I was always reluctant to study with the Open University despite encouragement from my mum, a fellow OU student. Part of me felt I was somehow “giving up” by not facing my issues head on and forcing myself to be around people in an educational setting. But, fed up of being a drop-out and realising I’d always preferred the autodidact way of learning I signed up and haven’t looked back since. Studying with the OU allows me to continue my education despite my problems and has helped me fall back in love with learning again, something I doubted would ever happen and believing the opportunity to gain a degree and have a career was something other people had, not some anxious wreck terrified of the world.

Following the completion of some short science courses to ease me back in to studying again I’m now aiming for a degree in physics. It’s not always being easy, concentrating on differential equations for hours on end when you’re depressed and crying your eyes out can be horrific but the university has services on offer for students with disabilities which include the Disabled Students Allowance (to pay for any additional costs relating to your disability), flexibility with assignment deadlines and individual support during examinations. I have asked for extensions for a couple of assignments due to struggling to motivate myself because of my depression.

The study is also part-time which makes things less stressful and means I can study alongside receiving treatment for my mental health. The number of hours I study a day or week varies quite a bit, but on average, around two hours a day are dedicated purely to study. I’ve found when my assignments are due I become a bit obsessive with the studying and can spend days or nights on end studying.

Some people find distance learning isolating and admittedly, sometimes it’d be great to sit down and have a chat with fellow students; there are plenty of opportunities to chat online via the forums, Facebook and Twitter, which suits me.

I have used the forums available on the OU website which is part of it “virtual campus”. I have also used one set up by students on Facebook where I just chatted about the course rather than anything mental health related; it helped remind me I wasn’t on my own.

For some courses there are face-to-face or online tutorials every few months where you get to communicate with your tutor, who is always available by email and telephone. I’ve been too anxious to go to face-to-face tutorials which is why I’m so glad online ones were provided.

Studying as a way of managing a mental health problem may not be for everyone but it has managed to keep me focused and helped me realise my life doesn’t have to be defined by being unwell and a mental health service user. Recovery may be long and arduous but I’m convinced studying – and I hope to finish the degree in another four years – will be an integral part of keeping me mentally healthy.

* Carrie is involved in the charity Young Minds’ VIK (Very Important Kids) project which campaigns on youth mental health. You can follow Carrie and Vik on Twitter @vikproject

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

We should be kind, while there is still time

Lol Butterfield, mental health campaigner
Over 30 years ago as a young man I first set foot in a psychiatric hospital. It was an old Victorian “asylum” in the rolling countryside of Bedfordshire. I had travelled to the south of England from my native north east to find work, and here I found myself.

I wandered down the endless dimly lit corridors and found myself surrounded by staring, pain-etched faces with wild curious eyes. It felt like I had stumbled onto the set of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. There was a sense of unreality to it all, but also of mystique. It was so stereotypical of all I had previously read in books and seen on television about asylums – those places others and never ourselves, of course, will be sent to for being “mad”.

Next year, it will be 50 years since the first steps towards community care for mental health (see this useful mental health timeline on the Mind website) this “anniversary” has made me revisit my early experiences as a mental health care professional and look afresh at the history of mental health care.

After 1962’s Hospital plan for England and Wales, large psychiatric hospitals closed and local authorities developed community services. That was, of course, the theory – not all local areas had adequate community services as we know, so there were still long-stay patients in hospitals up and down the country.

So it was more than three decades ago in that psychiatric hospital that my understanding and awareness of mental illness grew. I came to realise that the staring faces and wild eyes were ordinary people who had found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. They had been incarcerated many years before.

As a consequence of the debilitating illnesses they had, such as schizophrenia, and the horrendous medication side effects, they were displaying mannerisms that drew unwanted attention. Mannerisms that perpetuated the stigmatising process further. They had lost their self confidence, their motivation, and probably more importantly their daily living skills to function independently outside of the hospital confines. They had become institutionalised. The hospital was their home and they would eventually die there. Within the walls of the hospital the behaviour became normalised, the wandering up and down corridors, the staring at strangers and the shuffling gait. Outside in the local town it was polarised.

In the early 1990s many of the old asylums were closed. They had become anachronistic. More people were now being rehabilitated with the government’s proposal for care in the community, a radical shift in policy and approach essentially moving most of the care emphasis from the hospitals into the communities. People were discharged from the hospitals back into their communities with follow up planned support and care (in most cases).

Sadly some slipped through the safety net of care. And in the years that followed the medication improved and the stigmatising side effects became less. There was an increased acknowledgement of the importance of social inclusion, of recovery from illness, and of empowerment – treating people as individuals with informed choice and promoting equality.

Flashforward to 2011 and yet we still have stigma. We still have misunderstanding and we still have inequality in many sections of society for those 1 in 4 of the population who experience mental illhealth.

What is my long term vision of stigma and discrimination and where we will be in the next 50 years? I believe that stigma will have been eradicated completely following the success of campaigns such as Time To Change. I hope for a realisation that both our physical and mental wellbeing work in correlation and, as such, cannot and must not be split. I believe the strength and vision of those who have fought so hard will be acknowledged one day and in schools across the country their stories will be lesson material. Leading figures in the anti-stigma movement will be seen more positively as vehicles for social change. Mental health stigma will be seen in the same unacceptable light as racism and homophobia.

I have campaigned for many years, most of my adult life even, and no doubt ruffled a few feathers in the process. But I would rather stand up and be counted for saying something I passionately believe in than silently watch and do nothing. This I cannot do alone and I am always motivated by the support I get from others, more so from the victims of stigma and discrimination themselves.

As Philip Larkin wrote in The Mower, “We should be kind while there is still time”. In the case of mental health and tackling stigma and discrimination this kindness will hopefully continue through campaigning. We have come a long way, but we are not there yet.

Pictures of mental health

In a Room, by William Ball

The painting here, depicting the torment of a lost past and an unknown future, is among the intriguing works in a new exhibition opening in London today which focuses on mental health. The arts event by charity CoolTan Arts, an organistion run for and by people with experience of mental health issues that I’ve blogged about before, includes collage, painting, sculpture to batik and drawing.

William Ball, the artist behind the piece above, In a Room, says his use of black and yellow reflects concepts of death and danger. Another of Ball’s pieces, Through a Window, meanwhile, represents the optimism and growth he found at CoolTan; it is no coincidence that the artist also cares for the garden at the arts charity.

Ball has been a CoolTan regular since 2003 after a mental health crisis sparked by his mother’s death a few years previously, redundancy and relationship breakdown. “My future looked very bleak, at 51-years-old my life seemed as if it was over.” Almost sectioned and prescribed “heavy medication”, Ball was introduced to CoolTan Arts by a friend: “The people were warm and supportive. I soon visited regularly and enjoyed being part of it.”

The artist’s story is testament to the charity’s work which aims to change perceptions of mental ill health. The organisation, based in Southwark, south London, believes that mental wellbeing is enhanced by creativity.

Here are a few of the other pieces on show until November 30th at Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, south London.

Geometric Patterns, Marjorie McLean
View from the Southbank of Tower Bridge, Aaron Pilgrim
Untitled, Graham Newton
Through a Window, William Ball

The free exhibition opens today at a Library, 188 Herne Hill Road, SE24 0AG, and runs until November 30. For information call 0207 701 2696 or email: suzie@cooltanarts.org.uk

“I remember when she could make herself a cup of tea”

When I asked my kids to tell me how they felt about visiting their grandma, who has dementia, in her care home, they were honest. “It can be a bit spooky because there are a lot of people there who can’t remember things,” said my eight-year-old. “It’s sad sometimes when we see her, especially when she says she thinks you’re her sister. I don’t really like hearing that. I remember when she was in her own house and she could make herself a cup of tea.”

Hard as it was to hear those words, I can’t say I find my daughter’s reaction surprising. I often find a visit to my mum “spooky” too. Although her care home is very good, it’s not somewhere I’d ever wanted her to be. It’s tough seeing her now, so different from the active person she once was, and the behaviour of people with dementia can be disconcerting and at times downright distressing. I initially found the resident who repeatedly cries out: “I feel terrible” very upsetting – and I’m supposed to be the adult.

The children and I have talked about how my mother used to be, why she gets confused now and why it’s so important that we spend the time that we do with her. My five-year-old summed it up well: “If we didn’t go, she’d be upset and she’s your mum.” But although we have often talked about dementia, and how it makes them feel, I’ve sometimes felt I was struggling to explain what was going on.

That’s why I was so impressed to find The Milk’s In The Oven, a booklet published by the Mental Health Foundation, to help children understand a bit more about dementia. Simply written, with practical exercises to encourage children to think about what it might be like to lose their memory, it’s an effective tool both for the classroom and for families affected by dementia.

Toby Williamson, head of development and later life at the Mental Health Foundation, explains that the booklet, originally published more than a decade ago but updated this autumn, is designed to help address some of the stigma surrounding dementia. “What we are trying to do is help young people understand what dementia is and how it affects the person,” he says. “It addresses the fears children might experience and the feelings they might have of being embarrassed or angry. What it is saying is actually you might well have those feelings, it’s understandable and you can talk about it. We want to reduce the fear of going to visit people with dementia. Social relationships are incredibly important for people with dementia – even in the final stages, a bit of contact, just holding hands, can mean so much.”

As Williamson points out, most families in the UK will, at some stage, have a relative or friend with dementia. It’s important, he stresses, that people know more about the disease, both so that they can support the person affected and so that they can encourage relatives to get an early diagnosis, often so valuable in terms of treatment and preparing for what’s ahead. And even for those children who don’t know anyone with dementia, there’s huge value in learning more about it.

Schools are increasingly teaming up with health professionals to build the links which can foster greater understanding. One impressive project is in Doncaster, where pupils from three schools now visit day centres across the town, taking part in activities like baking, sewing, singing and playing dominoes with people with dementia.

Mary Beardsley, the team manager for the local NHS trust’s Doncaster Community Memory Therapy Service says, the youngsters involved, who are aged between nine and 11, usually don’t have any personal experience of dementia. But thanks to the project they have built strong relationships with the service users, gaining a real respect for them as individuals. For the older people too, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“Our patients gain so much confidence – it puts them in a position of power being able to teach the children something,” says Beardsley. “When you get dementia, you lose your confidence and you don’t think you are good enough. Seeing the interaction between children and patients is fantastic. The children grow to love them and the patients can’t wait for them to come.”

That recipe for a better understanding of dementia through building new relationships is one I can see developing in my own children. As they talk with some of the residents at my mum’s home, I hope they are seeing that older people with dementia need our support and respect. It’s a lesson that, as the numbers with dementia rise, more of the younger generation will need to learn.

Is target-driven schooling damaging children’s mental health?

This evening the charity YoungMinds hosts its annual debate in London on the controversial topic of whether our target driven schools system is damaging children’s wellbeing. The charity aims to improve the mental health and emotional well-being of children and young people.

The discussion will be chaired by the BBC’s Home Editor, Mark Easton with panellists including Fiona Millar, journalist and education campaigner, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, Karen Robinson, head of education and equality at the National Union of Teachers, Ian Morris, Head of Wellbeing at Wellington College and Adele Eastman, senior policy specialist at the Centre for Social Justice.

After what promises to be a controversial debate, the event will conclude with a short film made by young people who are part of the Very Important Kids (VIK) participation group – of which I am a member – on this subject and the stigma faced by young people with mental health difficulties.

A still from tonight's VIK film about schooling and mental health. Pic: VIK

The film to be shown tells the story of a schoolgirl called Jessie who, though having no diagnosed mental illness is experiencing a great deal of emotional distress and finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the amount of stress she is under, especially with exams looming and pressure from school and family to perform well. Every year around exam time we hear of the stress young people are being placed under to achieve top grades, sometimes to the detriment of their mental health. Our film hopes to shine a light on this issue, promote debate and emphasise the importance of good emotional wellbeing to prevent future mental health difficulties.

A film made by youth mental health campaigners considers if targets damage pupil's wellbeing?Pic: VIK

Acted, directed and produced by members of the VIK group we aim to produce a trilogy of films centred on the theme of young people’s mental health, ranging from emotional problems to more severe forms of mental illness. The message we endeavour to get across is that every one of us is susceptible to mental health difficulties; we all exist on a continuum from happiness, to sadness, to an inability to cope and then mental illness.

Mental health is not simply an affliction of the few but something one in four of us can expect to experience in our lifetime. Because of this understanding how to take care of your emotional wellbeing and building resilience from a young age is vital and another theme which will be interweaved through the trilogy.

Having mental health difficulties from a young age can bring with it its own stigma. Young people can feel stigmatised against in society anyway, for a whole host of reasons and when you add on to that the stigma of having a mental health problem it can be really difficult to trust anyone enough to talk to them about what you are experiencing, or even find someone willing to listen and empathise.

All the young people involved in making this film have experience of mental health difficulties and the desire to challenge old ideas about mental health is something we feel passionately about. Demystifying what it’s like to be a young person with mental health difficulties can go a long way to tackling stigma and educating future generations that mental health isn’t just about mental illness and definitely not something to be afraid of.

* This evening we will also celebrate the launch of a new project, YoungMinds in Schools, to improve the emotional wellbeing of children and young people in school. The programme aims to improve outcomes for children and young people with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties by bringing together professionals, parents, children and young people to create a comprehensive suite of learning resources.

The project seeks to maximise the potential to positively influence the emotional wellbeing and mental health of the whole school community, adults and children, as well as addressing the specific needs of pupils identified as having behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESDs).

The programme will work collaboratively with clusters of primary and secondary schools and the services that link to those schools, providing training and consultancy support to schools and gathering the views of professionals, parents and pupils to shape innovative resources. YoungMinds has received two years funding from the Department for Education (DfE) through its Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) programme for the YoungMinds in Schools project.

The social benefits of a seaside stay

Back to school after the half term break today and while some children will have enjoyed days out or trips away, two million live in families that can’t afford a day trip to the seaside, never mind a holiday.

Today is also the day that an All Party Parliamentary Group on social tourism is due to publish its findings. Its remit over the last few months has been “to investigate and promote the social and economic benefits of social tourism”, social tourism generally meaning that families on low incomes are helped to afford a break. Family breaks, say supporters of social tourism, can lead to children being more engaged at school, boost social integration, help with health issues and encourage economic growth in under-used resorts or regions which suffer from the ebb and flow of seasonal tourism.

But while not being able to take holidays has been used as a poverty indicator by the government since 2003, it’s easy to see why social tourism is a contentious issue. After all, why should you have a holiday if you don’t have a job to take a break from? Why should the taxpayer fund your vacation if you don’t earn enough to pay for your own?

The debate also touches on issues such as allowing children out of school during term time (to take advantage of off-peak breaks) as well as notions of charity handouts to jobless families and their “naughty children”. As one teacher commented in a Guardian piece earlier this year on charity holidays “There was resentment from some of the families not chosen…We were accused of ‘taking the naughty children’. We didn’t, but perhaps it was understandable that they thought so.”

The Family Holiday Association, the charity where that two million statistic I quoted above came from, helps low income families have time away. The organisation takes referrals from welfare agencies like social services and children’s charities, helping those with a yearly household income of below £26,000 access holidays and who have not had a break for four years.

While social tourism in the UK is somewhat ad-hoc – the Family Holiday Association relies on voluntary donations to fund families in need of a break and invidivual social services departments might have case-by-case funding for respite breaks – the rest of Europe has state-aided social tourism.

French “holiday cheques”, for example, can be used for accommodation, food, transport, leisure and culture. Employees get help to make regular savings, supplemented by employers and social organisations which get reduced taxes in return. The employee redeems the total value of the savings and supplementary contributions in the form of holiday cheques. In Spain, a state and benificiary-funded holiday programme funds breaks for older people which also tackle seasonality in the tourism sector. It gives older people the chance for holidays in off-peak areas with a warm climate.

Lynn Minnaert, lecturer in tourism at Surrey University who runs a programme for the Economic and Social Research Council on social tourism, has contributed to the APPAG report. She argues that while the policy concept is on the UK’s political agenda as a talking point, there is little clear action on social tourism.

Minnaert’s Europe-wide research includes schemes where people have improved their family relationships and been helped into employment or boosted their mental health (this, although published a while ago, is an interesting article by Clare Allen on why people with mental health problems rarely take holidays). Minnaert argues the time is right for the UK to embrace the concept of social tourism but acknowledges that “the misconception that the government will pay people to go on holidays” makes proper debate difficult.

But Minnaert adds that social tourism isn’t simply about “state-funded holidays”; the state could provide a service to put people in touch with holiday and leisure venues that stand empty, from barely occupied seaside B&Bs to underused cafes and restaurants. Resorts with low occupancy could specialize on a more organised basis in holidays for those coming out of hospital, she adds (after all, the health benefits of seawater is what made resorts like Brighton became fashionable in the late 18th century) and be involved in more respite care projects for families with disabled children.

Minnaert says she hopes the APPG report due today will show social tourism is cost-effective and encourage a new social policy to the UK, getting past the “government paying for unemployed to go on holiday” school of thought to a more grown-up debate on the issue.

In terms of practical action, next steps include a forum or network between tourism sector and policy – “on both sides there is willingness to look into this, but no vehicle” – and mapping of under-used holiday provision. Minneart also suggests new joint procurement for people who cannot travel independently or who have not travelled before, transport providers could get involved.

The Family Holiday Association has complied comments from those they have helped, among them a family where the youngest child needed regular hospital treatment and where the father was unemployed and had cancer. The family had a seaside break in Skegness, and although a world away from the hot, faraway destinations most people refer to when they say they “need a holiday”, the long-term impact of the break was priceless. As the family’s support worker said: “I could see that the three week build up to the holiday was as important as the holiday itself. And for the next six months the family lived off the break.”

From homeless to hero

Tom Hodson at the Ancient Technology Centre, Dorset. He has just won a BTCV Green Hero award. Credit: Professional Images
Tom Hodson used to live on the streets, his was a peripatetic lifestyle that did little to help him overcome his depression and manic episodes. Diagnosed bipolar, even when he got a roof over his head, he often went for a week without proper sleep.

Today he is honoured as a Green Hero in an annual awards scheme, having made a difference to the local environment through volunteering and transforming his life in the process. The 21-year-old from Salisbury has has won in the natual health category in the awards run by practical conservation charity British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), recognising how he’s changed his own life and inspired others. The Green Hero awards show the positive impact of those who give their time for community-based conservation projects.

Environmental charity BTCV volunteer Tom Hodson a "green hero". Credit: Professional Images

Tom’s hands-on, practical work with the charity has had, he says, huge benefits on his sleep issues. Without his role, he adds “I’d be doing nothing..going nowhere with my life.”

The scheme has given him “direction and purpose” and has boosted his mental health. As well as becoming more confident, he has learned time keeping, healthy eating and how to use a computer. He leads groups of volunteers and is looking forward to coming off benefits and into paid work.

Environmental award-winner Tom Hodson at the Ancient Technology Centre, Dorset. Credit: Professional Images

Tom’s fellow Green Heroes include Michael Rogerson, 20, who won the volunteer of the year award. Michael, who has been deaf since birth, joined BTCV after 15 months without work, he was depressed and had very low self esteem. He has now got his dream job as a gardener and is learning to speak after having a cochlear implant and one day hopes to set up a dry stone walling business.

And the benefit of supporting and including a diverse volunteer workforce is not simply on the inviduvual themselves; having such a diverse team of volunteers improves social inclusion and breaks stigmas.

There are of course specific schemes that offer people with disabilities or those with mental health problems the opportunity to donate their time to the community with support. Schemes like the Respect Us project, run by charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV) that help young learning disabled people to volunteer as they move from school to becoming a young adult.

It might seem like the current financial climate is the worst time to invest in extra support for volunteers who might be vulnerable in some way, but supported volunteering, pays dividends. Check here for great little film showing how Jenny, with Asperger’s found new confidence and skills and boosted intergenerational contact between local youth and older people through supported volunteering).

At BTCV, volunteer officers are aware of the impact of “green heros” likes Michael and Tom. Senior project officer Rachel Miller, who nominated Michael says: “His can-do attitude, where there are no barriers, has been an example to us all.” Tara Hares, volunteer officer who works with Tom, adds: “He turns up raring to go, he doesn’t allow his issues to affect the work he is doing..I feel proud working with Tom, knowing what he has been through and he is still funny, and brilliant at what he does. I’m pleased and proud to work with him.”

Watch this quite lovely film, introduced by Sir David Attenborough, which features both Tom and Michael and other inspiring volunteers:
http://youtu.be/GSCattrH3bA

* On a related note, the Hardest Hit campaign run jointly by the Disability Benefits Consortium and the UK Disabled People’s Council has organised several events tomorrow, Saturday 22nd, in protest about the impact of cuts on society’s most vulnerable – a community that includes people whose needs echo those of Tom and Michael, above. More information on what’s happening tomorrow is here.