Category Archives: Mental health

The cuts – an alternative

For those who’ve not already seen it, this powerful film presents an alternative to the government’s devastating cuts agenda. It features community groups and anti-cuts campaigners along with Bill Nighy, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Zac Goldsmith MP. Worth watching ahead of this weekend’s demo in London against the cuts.

It Cuts Both Ways…The Alternatives from Oonagh Cousins on Vimeo.

Digital switchover boss pledges help to the hardest to reach

Peter White must be the only chartered accountant in the country with a corporate slogan that could belong to a social exclusion charity – “Nobody left behind” – a clutch of charity partnerships under his belt and a network of neighbourhood activists whose grassroots knowledge helps him do his job. Read my Society Guardian interview here with Peter White, the head of the BBC’s digital switchover scheme who is trying to ensure nobody is left with a blank TV screen.

The reality behind the mental health strategy rhetoric

Carrie Holroyd, writer and mental health activist

As someone who has experienced mental health problems since childhood I was elated to discover, on February 2, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg waxing lyrical about the importance of mental health on breakfast television. It was the new mental health strategy in England, No Health Without Mental Health, a cross-governmental approach to mental health and wellbeing, putting particular emphasis on talking therapies, early intervention and children/young people’s mental health.

£400 million is being invested in mental health services and I applaud the move to improve access to psychological therapies (often described as a ‘Cinderella service’) such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a type of therapy which works to gradually change a person’s negative thought patterns and behavioural responses over a set period of time.

These types of therapies have been proven to work extremely well for people with mild mental health problems, such as short-term reactive (caused by an external trauma, such as a bereavement or job loss) depression and anxiety. Allowing people access to this type of support at the first onset of symptoms can prevent mental health problems spiralling into more severe forms of mental illness and, if it works, will save the government money as mental health problems are estimated to cost £105bn a year, according to the Centre for Mental Health.

I am pleased children/young people’s mental health is at the forefront of the strategy. Mental health service provision for young people is woefully inadequate, despite research showing half of all people who develop a lifetime mental health problems start to show symptoms at the age of 14. I can attest to this and perhaps with early intervention my mental health would not have deteriorated. Not mentioned, and something which is close to my heart, is how schools can assist with early intervention by training staff in mental health and employing in-school counsellors. My mental health problems were exacerbated by the deficit in knowledge about mental health in my school and as such I feel schools need to be included in discussion on early intervention and preventative measures.

As my elation waned and cynicism set in I pondered some questions: what about those with severe or enduring mental health problems? A short course of CBT is rarely enough when your problems are embedded or not easily identifiable, and I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to get sustained support. Regrettably for the government mental health problems are complex and unwieldy; they can accost you unannounced, be rooted in indescribable traumas and take years to recover from or even manage on a day to day basis. They are highly subjective and as such what is required is a subjective approach, there is no therapeutic panacea.

Talking to other young people, who like me have had mental health problems since a young age, there is a worry psychological therapies will be skewed in favour of CBT over other forms of talking therapies such as psychotherapy, art therapy and group therapy, to name a few. There are myriad treatment options out there but it can be extremely hard to gain access to many of them; perhaps they are not available widely in your area, are expensive or you’re simply told you’re not ‘unwell enough’ yet. The latter can be especially disheartening to hear when you have been physically unable to function for months on end and are desperate for even a semblance of support. There is not one cause for someone developing a mental health problem and while CBT works for many people it is important to note it does not work for everybody and there needs to be access to an array of psychological therapies if these proposals are going to work.

Another question I had after reading about the strategy was about how it can possibly succeed with council cuts affecting mental health services the way they are. In my last blog post I expressed concern about how cuts are affecting voluntary sector mental health services and I come back to this point now. With day centres closing around the country, jobs being lost and the lack of psychiatric beds available mental health provision is not in a good place and I’m left wondering how the government think the NHS can compensate for all these crucial losses.

As a resident of Leeds I was dismayed to hear of the decision to close the Leeds Crisis Centre, Leeds’ only instant access counselling service for people needing immediate support. The rationale behind this is that the service itself isn’t unique and is duplicated within the NHS. With GPs and mental health professionals regularly referring people deemed too ‘high risk’ for NHS services they have come out in force to support the crisis centre and postpone the decision until a rigorous consultation has taken place. I have to wonder how serious the government is about helping people suffering mental distress. Will the rhetoric become reality? Or will, as has become the norm, those of us with mental health problems be left floundering about desperately searching for any kind of support?

Growing old gracefully; shelter with style

London's 'best place to live' according to town planners
With bursts of retro orange shooting through its autumnal colour palette and wooden floors framed by bright white walls, the purpose-built accommodation pictured here wouldn’t look out of place in some interiors magazines.

Beneath the well-appointed rooms lies a bistro and a health spa where you can get your hair cut and styled or enjoy a pedicure.

The building, which opened in November, has achieved code level four for sustainable homes. It is heavily insulated, rainwater is harvested for reuse and heating is sourced from photovoltaic and solar thermal technology. A combined heat and power source also produces electricity, with any surplus sold to the national grid. The entire complex is wired for super-fast broadband.

Little wonder Ewart House has just won a ‘best place to live in London’ award in the Royal Town Planning Insitute’s annual London Planning Awards.

Ewart House's hair salon

A boutique hotel or maybe the latest urban eco-housing?

The only giveaway that Ewart House might in fact be sheltered housing is the fact the ground floor ‘spa’ also offers assisted bathing and the pedicure is really, well, more chiropody. Look more closely and you see the handrails lining the walls and the discrete pacing area for vulnerable residents. The decor and furnishings are also colour coordinated to enable residents with limited vision and dementia to recognise which part of the building they are in; no institutional signage here but subtle ways for residents to get their bearings. In a separate wing with its own entrance are seven flats let to younger people with disabilities and the building is intended to act as a community hub.

Ewart House appears to have substance as well as style; this isn’t just fashionable living for the frail. The extra care sheltered home for frail older people, including people with mild dementia, contains self-contained flats for 47 residents. Almost all flats have a private balcony and some are designed for couples whose fragile health prevents them from sharing a bedroom.The weekly rent and service charges are £135.

The ground floor bistro, Ewart House

The project is a partnership between housing association Harrow Churches (HCHA), which manages the building and provides day time support, and the charity Creative Support, which provides specialist support staff on call 24-hours a day.

With a recent report by the Alzheimers Society suggesting that 50,000 people in the UK are being forced into care homes prematurely, Ewart House has three flats designed for people with mild dementia and the staff are trained in dementia care.

The three-storey building, designed by architects JCMT and styled by interior decorators Stanbridge Interiors, was built using a £6.3m loan from the Homes and Communities Agency, a £3m loan secured by HCHA from Santander and money raised by leasing part of the land to development partner Octavia Housing. Harrow Council pays for employing two teams of staff providing personal care and support while housing support staff are employed by HCHA.

Despite the obvious benefits and official plaudits, HCHA warns the funding climate is a massive threat to creating similar schemes. Chief execuitve Chris Holley says: ‘We’re extremely worried that funding will not be available for more schemes like this despite the substantial social and financial advantages it offers over alternatives like residential and nursing care.

According to one elderly resident, William Fordham, Ewart House is a breath of fresh air: ‘The best thing is the freedom. It’s magic – I have my own flat but carers coming in and out. I didn’t know places like this existed.’ As William’s words suggest, why should losing your youth mean losing your desire for decent décor?

* Images by photographer Lucy Baker

Reunion for refugee families

When Almaz Berhanu Yesbasa fled Ethiopia for political reasons, leaving behind her husband and four daughters, two years passed before she saw her family again. She was granted refugee status in the UK but did not know where her daughters were until the British Red Cross traced them, supported Almaz with Home Office visa applications and brought about the family’s reunion in 2006. Read more about a new charity, the Refugee Welcome Trust, which helps to reunite refugees separated from loved ones, in my Society Guardian article.

Young, gifted and blanked?

Sarah Dougan
Caroline Holroyd
“People assume because we’re young and because we have suffered with a mental health problem, what we say is irrelevant,” says 19-year-old Edinburgh student Sarah-Jane Dougan. Dougan and Leeds-based Caroline Holroyd, 21, are members of Very Important Kids (VIK), a panel of campaigners advising mental health charity YoungMinds on its aims.

Both women have experienced mental health issues, including depression, for which they have undergone counselling and therapy. VIK aims to help shape health services; it recently worked with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example. Dougan and Holroyd’s brand of user involvement reflects health secretary Andrew Lansley’s patient-led vision for the NHS. Here they explain why politicians and policymakers should listen to them.

We got involved with VIK because… it was a chance to use our negative experience with mental health, and get something positive out of it. I’m sure a lot of service users have opinions on how their service can be improved or change, and they know what worked and what didn’t, and also what needs to be done. As part of VIK we have the opportunity to influence these things, and get the ball rolling to bring change (Sarah Dougan/SD).

Patients must influence services because… We’re the experts; real life experience is what has informed our opinions (Caroline Holroyd/CH).

Young people in particular must influence services because…we are the future, the next generation. We’re the ones who will be using these services in years to come (CH). Having a good service for young people will mean that they are less likely to have to use adult services when they are older. Prevention is better than treatment (SD)!

The biggest challenge has been…making people realise that young people with mental health problems can have a valuable input. People seem to assume that because we are young, and because we have suffered with a mental health problem, what we say is irrelevant (SD).

Consultation today is…rare, but improving. Sometimes I feel when services ask for young people’s participation it is simply a tokenistic gesture – lip service (CH).

The key to real patient involvement is…engaging with people from all areas of society and making sure it is easy for them to get involved (CH). It’s about listening and actually hearing what the patient has to say rather than the organization simply making a bunch of decisions and then asking if it’s ok (SD).

Mental ill-health among the young…isn’t always openly discussed even within families where one or more of them has a mental health problem. Mental illness in itself is an issue that is kept under wraps because of the prevailing stigma, lack of education and the many myths surrounding it, sometimes perpetuated by the media (people with mental illness as serial killers, and so on) (CH). It’s an issue that people would rather admit wasn’t happening (SD).

The biggest problem with the mental health system is…the waiting times for receiving treatment, particularly talking therapies. People can be waiting months and even then not end up receiving the correct treatment for their condition. On the whole treatment can be very hit and miss, and support isn’t always sustained meaning people can be suffering in silence (CH). People can’t access services when they need it. If you have anorexia for example, mental health services only seem to recognize it when your body weight is so low that you need to be hospitalized. This is relying on the patients physical health rather than their mental health (SD).

The biggest problem with psychiatric units is…they can feel like prisons; they can be very disempowering (CH). Patients are there to get help – not to be punished (SD)!

The biggest difference the government could make in mental health policy would be…to treat it with the same seriousness and urgency as physical health (SD).

If we had five minutes with health secretary Andrew Lansley…we’d ask him what he thinks needs to change. If he has the same points as us – why hasn’t something been done about it before (SD)? I’d emphasise the importance of prioritising young people’s mental health services and how promoting emotional wellbeing and using early intervention techniques can prevent more severe mental problems which will ultimately put less pressure on the NHS (CH).

Shades, strut and soul; a universal arts experience

Rapper Dean Rodney has a soulful strut, a powerful pair of lungs and a learning disability. Dark shades, smooth black suit, definitely supercool. I’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank tonight to see his band, the Fish Police, a fired-up trio that fuses hip hop with funk and punk and lists Japanese anime and fast food among its eclectic inspirations.

Fish Police met when musician and lyricist Charles Stuart trained two learning disabled youngsters, Dean (now Fish Police singer, rapper, bass and lyrics) and Matthew Howe (the trio’s equally cool rhythm guitarist) as part of a youth band based at disability arts organisation Heart n Soul.

Next month the Fish Police will be releasing their debut album, Cheeseburger Man (Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man for the McDonald’s generation?), performing at the Lincoln Center in New York and at Liverpool’s DaDa Fest, the UK’s largest disability and deaf arts festival. Their music is a fresh and freestyling antidote to the conveyor-belt fodder jostling for space in today’s uninspiringly plastic charts.

I came across Heart n Soul over a year ago when I heard about one of its artists, soul singer Lizzie Emeh. Lizzie broke new ground by becoming what’s thought to be the first learning disabled solo artist to release an album to the general public. Loud and Proud was three years in the making and produced with the support of Heart n Soul, 33 years after Lizzie’s parents were told never she would never walk or talk following complications at birth.

In 1984, musician Mark Williams (now Heart n Soul’s director) wanted to explore how music and art could make a difference in communities. He began running creative sessions in east London for a group of people with learning disabilities who went to the local day centre, The Mulberry Centre. Eventually The Mulberry Crew, as they came to be known, moved into a bigger arts complex in Deptford and became Heart n Soul, with the aim of working towards professional productions – not simply, as was then the norm, undergoing art therapy.

The charity now runs a hugely popular club night for people with learning disabilities, the Beautiful Octopus club, and has a consultancy arm to advise other organisations on setting up cultural events for those with special needs. It also employs people with a learning disability and markets arts events to the learning disabled.

The Fish Police, Lizzie Emeh and their other talented peers are also regulars at Heart n Soul’s summer arts festival which is based on the Beautiful Octopus club night. The event isn’t on most people’s summer festival radars, but it should be. Along with live music, the event a couple of months ago boasted a comedy stage, improv and open mic sessions, face painting, a massage tent, a chill out zone designed by the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, cinema room, dance floor and VJs and DJs. Performance art is notoriously hard to pull off, but the trio of artists performing as Live Heart did so with panache, demonstrating why the Tate Modern recently invited them to perform. K:DNA showed off their inspired blend of funk, reggae and classical music while the Riki Jodelko Band were an amazingly tight soul-pop outfit, astounding when they covered Bill Withers’ Lovely Day and Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved.

Best of all, I loved the inclusive nature of the event. The Beautiful Octopus invites everyone to have a good time, regardless of ability or special need. When you enter the world of Heart n Soul’s festivals or club nights, when you immerse yourself in the melee of fancy dress, fairy wings and face paints, when someone in a clown outfit tumbles head over heels into a perfect cartwheel right in front of you, whether they have a learning disability or not is irrelevant – what’s important is that they’re having fun. And it’s infectious.

Frankly, in this environment (compared to other events I’ve blogged about) it’s impossible not to roll with the good times. I’m working on my cartwheel for next summer…for tonight, the shades and soulful strut will have to do.

* The Beautiful Octopus Club is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, tonight (Friday 8 Oct) 7pm-12am. Entry is free.