Category Archives: Volunteering

No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping

Richard Turner and his volunteer befriender, Delia Jones
Richard Turner and his volunteer befriender, Delia Jones

“No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping…”

I saw these striking words on a postcard displayed at a recent event to celebrate volunteering. With the massive cuts in public spending and the unprecedented reform of welfare, it’s not hard to see why vulnerable people might think they don’t deserve any support.

The words, written by someone with experience of volunteering, referred to the vital work of London-based charity the Octavia Foundation. In full, the handwritten postcard read: “No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping and Octavia does such a good job of making sure that doesn’t happen.”

The event was Octavia’s annual volunteer awards, honouring some of the 250 local people who have given their time to others through the charity over the last year. Actor Tamsin Greig presented awards to those who support work with local people affected by ill health, social isolation, unemployment or poverty.

The foundation operates in the west London boroughs of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, supporting older people, working with young people, focusing on training and employment and debt advice. It runs regular groups and activities as well as some inspiring one-off projects which I’ve written about in the past.

The foundation works in one of the most affluent parts of the capital, but there is much for the charity to do in the pockets of deprivation that also exist.

I helped judge the charity’s awards, reading some incredible testimonies from people who benefit from the help of volunteers.

Delia Jones, who volunteers as a befriender for example, was highly commended. Delia was nominated by Richard, who she visits and who was involved in a serious car accident almost 40 years ago – both are pictured above.

Richard’s mother Joyce Turner, 95, who also nominated Delia, explained: “What Delia does for Richard is vital. He will tell Delia what kind of book he wants, as we have a lot of different kinds and we arrange them alphabetically so she can find them. Delia seems exactly right, and we love her visits because it gives Richard such pleasure to see her. The importance of her visit every week is that he only goes out three times a week, and if its raining or bad weather, she is the only thing that he looks forward to. She never lets us down and we can trust her.”

With welfare cuts and a squeeze on public sector funding, many support services are under threat so the work of volunteers is vital in helping society’s most vulnerable people. Some of the most innovative ideas – and inspiring, unsung heroes – are found in small, community-based projects that often don’t get the attention they deserve. The recent Octavia awards are an opportunity to put that right and focus on the important work carried out in local areas.

A full list of winners and background to the awards is on the Octavia Foundation website.

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

Christmas for care leavers

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A groundbreaking support scheme run by care leavers for care leavers is hoping to help vulnerable young people for a second year Christmas running.

478 blur Bilal on right with hat and blue top

Named in memory of a 23-year-old care-leaver, Topé, who took his life several years ago, the Tope Project helps care leavers and held its first festive event last year, allowing those who live alone to enjoy Christmas Day in a safe environment (the pictures here are from last year’s event).

Youth worker, Shalyce Lawrence, 24, who was in care for 10 years and considered Topé “like a brother”, started the volunteer-run project because some of Topé’s friends had nowhere to go. The group is raising £5,000 to make the Christmas event happen for around 80 young people. While the law was recently changed to allow young people in care to be supported beyond 18, Christmas and New Year – times when most people are with family – can be an isolating and difficult experience for many young people in care.

You can follow the project on Twitter: @TheTopeProject or find it on Facebook and help raise the £5,000 needed to run this important event again this year via JustGiving.

More autistic people should be able to volunteer

David Braunsberg
David Braunsberg
My experience proves the benefits of volunteering for people with autism. I was born in 1959 and diagnosed with autism in 1963, at age four. I was one of Sybil Elgar’s first pupils at her progressive school. She was a pioneer in autism and helped develop my language and communication skills.

I then attended a local primary school in Edinburgh, where my mother and I moved, and a mainstream secondary school in London when we moved back to England in 1972. Art was my strongest subject (I passed several O Levels) and I studied furnishing design and textiles at the London College of Furniture. I got a diploma in art and design. I took more courses after that at a local art college and learned things like etching and print making. My most recent works are computer generated greetings cards (see the website).

Following a traumatic event in 2008, I developed severe depression and anxiety . After some time attending a psychiatric unit, social services support and help from my GP, a social worker suggested volunteering and I was put in touch with Volunteer Centre Camden.

It was through the volunteer centre that I started working at the Holy Cross Centre Trust in July 2011. It is a secular organisation in King’s Cross, London, which supports mental health recovery as well as homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers.

I hadn’t volunteered before although I’d had some experience of work. The place where I worked previously was a company providing unpaid employment for people with mental health issues and was run as a social service. The aim was to manufacture and distribute large volumes of greeting cards to the mass market but I wasn’t happy there. The tasks I was involved in were printing and packing greeting cards and using Photoshop on a computer for designing cards for later use and batch production.

I did not get satisfaction there as I was mostly restricted to printing other people’s designs and this did not allow me to express my own ideas. Their bias was to produce Christmas cards and my inspiration for designs comes from many sources which are irrelevant for Christmas. The repetitive tasks were soul-destroying.

But at the Holy Cross where I am now, my role is to help and encourage people to draw and paint, also to set up and tidy the art materials. I work noon to 3pm. Everyone is kind and friendly and there is a positive buzz to the place. Not only is helping out so satisfying and rewarding, it helps me to gain significantly in confidence and the thrill of feeling respected and valued as part of a team is fantastically liberating. I have made many friends and can see myself thriving there well in the future.

Suitable volunteering should be open to more autistic people as the skills required such as attention to detail, reliability or some special talents are well suited to the autistic trait and may prove to be great assets for the workplace. On their part autistic people can benefit from mixing and socialising with people of different nationalities and backgrounds and feeling respected and valued. To me the regular routines, the structure to the week and the sense of purpose in society are most satisfying.

Autistic people may encounter some difficulties. For example, travelling on public transport, especially long distances, or unintentional and misinterpreted challenging behaviour may cause problems. But with foresight, awareness about autism, guidance and the right support I see no reason why autistic people should not be accepted and be very successful doing voluntary work. I am quite sure that, giving the right conditions, volunteering can be “autism friendly”.

The fact I am high functioning autistic has presented no problems in my volunteering. One of the benefits of working there is that it has a knock-on effect on my closeness, love and affection towards members of the family. I now feel so optimistic about the future. Socialising now comes with ease. I am thrilled with life!

* See more of David’s work on his website

The season to be jolly?

Christmas isn't all it's cracked up to be. Pic: The Topé Project (see end of article for info)
Christmas isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Pic: The Topé Project (see end of article for info)

Hooray, it’s Christmas! Yes, the season to be jolly is upon us once again. But that’s OK because everyone loves Christmas, right? Well, I’m not a fan and I know I won’t be the only one shunning the Christmas cheer, preferring instead to hide away with old Ebenezer Scrooge until the tinsel is put away and a new year begins.

This Christmas will be a difficult time for many people, even more so for those with mental health problems. Our society expects a lot from us at Christmas; shops, TV, advertisements and jolly newsreaders perpetuate the myth that we all have to be happy simply because it’s ‘that time of year’.

Being unwell at Christmas as a result of a mental health problem is rarely spoken about since the expectation is that everyone ought to be enjoying themselves; quaffing wine, eating too much and watching the Eastenders Christmas special. Knowing that people are suicidal or spending Christmas locked up in a psychiatric ward distorts this myth and exposes the reality of what Christmas is like for many of us.

Why aren’t you happy? It’s Christmas!

Telling people to ‘get a grip’ or ‘pull themselves together’ doesn’t help, ever, but especially not at Christmas when people are no doubt already chastising themselves for not being in the Christmas spirit and feeling like they are letting friends/family down. If this was possible there would be no such illness as depression, nor any other mental health problem. Making someone feel guilty over how they’re not feeling helps no one.

Having a mental health problem is a lonely experience and can make you feel like an outsider. It can be difficult to find people who ‘get it’ and are willing to listen, especially at Christmas when most people would rather be thinking about what presents they are going to buy.

It becomes less acceptable for people to speak honestly because we’re all supposed to so happy. People are more likely to keep quiet about how they are feeling at Christmas because of the pressure to be positive and have everything ‘perfect’ for the day itself. This quest for perfection can be dangerous because it is unattainable and doesn’t allow for people to let others know they are struggling.

Between Christmas and the New Year the usual support systems that people rely on aren’t available. Mental health services close during this period and on Christmas Day itself even places like coffee shops are closed. This may seem like a trivial complaint to some but when you rely on little things to help you get through the day – such as being able to go out each day and sit in the local coffee shop – not having the opportunity to do this can make it more difficult to cope with existing mental health problems and the stress of Christmas.

The disruption to regular appointments with a mental health service can make it difficult for people to know where to turn if things get tough over Christmas. Thankfully there are helplines available, such as the Samaritans, which do a fantastic job supporting people over the holidays. Generally people are told to go to A&E if they are struggling with a mental health problem in lieu of other mental health services being closed, but as you can imagine going into that environment when you’re in emotional distress can be inappropriate and frightening.

A great service in Leeds which offers face to face and telephone support for people experiencing a mental health crisis is the Leeds Survivor Led Crisis Service. Set up by people with direct experience of mental ill health they will be open Christmas Day and throughout the holiday season, providing an alternative to A&E and helping prevent hospital admissions with their helpline and crisis house.

It would be great if more of these services were available to people across the country, particularly at Christmas when many have nowhere else to turn.

* Project supports care-leavers at Christmas, writes Saba Salman
“Christmas conjures up thoughts of a big massive dinner, presents, fun… and then I think about so many young people who don’t have that. For me it’s really important that young people, especially the most vulnerable, have a good Christmas.” These are the words of youth worker Shalyce Lawrence, 24, who was in care for 10 years and who, along with several peers, has launched a project to support young care-leavers who are alone at Christmas.

Shalyce and a group of volunteers in their 20s have created the Topé Project, in memory of a 23-year-old care-leaver, Topé, who took his life several years ago. The scheme’s launch event, Christmas in the Crypt, is a Christmas Day celebration in London for 70 care-leavers from across the capital. Organisations supporting the scheme include the charity Crisis and five London councils, and the group has also been gathering donations to fund the drive.

The aim of the scheme is to create an “atmosphere of belonging”, positive memories and to help young people form constructive relationships. Young people in care are not supported by social services after the age of 18, unless they are in education and based on 2011 figures, as the project points out, 44% of 19-year-old care leavers in London were living in independent accommodation.

Shalyce adds: “It doesn’t mean you are going to be affected by suicidal thoughts just because you have been in care, you can be anyone and go through that. Think about how you can support the people around you, so it doesn’t have to happen to you.”

Read more about the project on The Independent website, find out more via email thetopeproject@gmail.com Twitter: @thetopeproject or on Facebook.

Playgrounds, pupils and promoting mental health

Positive mental health promotion should start in schools and we should teach all our children to be more mentally resilient. This approach means that, as adults, they will face the world with more confidence and have empathy and compassion for others. Currently 1 in 10 – or around 850,000 – children and young people are diganosed with a mental health problem, according to the charity Young Minds.

Research from Warwick University last week suggests that children involved in bullying – as both a victim and a bully – are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts by the time they reach 11-years-old.

Four years ago when I worked for the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, myself and a non-clinical colleague, Marjorie Wilson, who worked in the Information Department, created a storytelling-based approach to mental health for use in primary schools.

We based our idea on Virginia Ironside’s book The Huge Bag of Worries. It seemed the perfect choice to deliver a powerful message in a creative and interactive way. Our Huge Bag of Worries Emotional Health and Wellbeing Project aimed to highlight the detrimental impact of bullying on a child’s emotional health and wellbeing and promote more understanding of mental health, thus challenging the stigma aspect.

Each session lasted approximately 45 minutes and we visited over 30 schools, fitting in at least four classes into the day

We started by introducing ourselves and asking the children what a nurse did. I then explained the role of a mental health nurse and we asked what the term “mental” meant? After a chat about this, Marjorie then read the book which we also had on a Power Point display so the children could see the beautiful graphics.

We then got a volunteer from the class to put balloons – each of them representing a worry – into a large, colourful sack one by one as we recalled the story’s key messages. The child then walked up and down with the bag to show how difficult it was to carrying around your worries.

We tried to emphasise that you don’t need to carry around your worries and often we have to take each worry out and hand it to our parents or teachers. Children don’t often realise they don’t have to be burdened by adults’ worries.

We specifically highlighted bullying as a worry and what we could all do to prevent and deal with this. At the end of the day 25 children, five from each class, would line up in the playground and one by one they would release the helium balloons. The rest of the school and the parents would stand around in a large circle and watch. Everyone would clap and cheer – that was one of the highlights of our day.

The project was funded for a year but we went on to deliver it voluntarily for a further two years. We still deliver it now voluntarily.

The project was successful as the book carries a simple yet powerful message. It has beautiful graphics and words and we used colourful materials in an informal, creative approach.

It seemed to resonate well with pupils in their final year of primary school who were apprehensive about starting a new school. We also found many of the children were also less judgemental and had far fewer preconceived ideas around mental health than adults.

The children would often say who their best friends were and that they would talk to them if they were being bullied or felt stressed. This was quite touching. One school had a “friendship bench” in the playground that a child could go and sit on if they felt alone so that others would know this and play with them.

We met a number of children who were caring for parents with ongoing mental health issues. Often, they enjoyed their caring roles and in a way they felt proud of what they were doing. I feel our project helped them to ‘normalise’ their circumstances and showed the other children in the class that because mental health affects one in four of us, they were not so different to their classmates.

The path to positive mental health and the shattering of stereotypes and stigma can start in the classroom and children. While the government’s new mental health strategy, No health without mental health, promotes more teaching of mental strength, or “resilience”, in schools so children grow up better prepared to face the stressors of the world, the caveat is that there will be no extra money to fund this.

12 days of Christmas, Social Issue-style

Season’s greetings from The Social Issue – to mark the jollities, here’s a snapshot of some of the upbeat posts and pictures about people, projects and places featured over the last 12 months. This festive pick is by no means the best of the bunch – the inspiring stories below are included as they’re accompanied by some interestin and images and almost fit with a festive carol, if you allow for a little the poetic and numerical licence…

Very huge thanks to the Social Issue’s small band of regular and guest bloggers, all contributors, supporters, readers and everyone who’s got in touch with story ideas and feedback. See you in January.

On the first day of Christmas, the blogosphere brought to me:

A tiger in an art show

Batik Tiger created by a student at specialist autism college, Beechwood

Two JCBs

The Miller Road project, Banbury, where agencies are tackling youth housing and training. Pic: John Alexander

Three fab grans

Hermi, 85: “I don’t really feel like an older woman.”

Four working teens

From antisocial behaviour to force for social good; Buzz Bikes, Wales.

Five(ish) eco tips

Eco hero Phil uses a “smart plug” to monitor domestic energy use

Six(ty) volunteers

Young volunteer with City Corps, Rodney WIlliams

Seven(teen) pairs of wellies

Abandoned festival rubbish, Wales, gets recycled for the homeless, pic credit: Graham Williams

Eight(een-years-old and over) people campaigning

Participants in the Homeless Games, Liverpool

1950s hall revamping

"The kid who talked of burning down the place is now volunteering to paint it."

10 lads a leaping

11-year-olds integrating

Children's al fresco activiites at the Big Life group summer scheme

12(+) painters painting

View from the Southbank of Tower Bridge, Aaron Pilgrim, CoolTan Arts

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Decent homes for the homeless

“Homelessness doesn’t have a face,” says Janet Marsh, “it can happen to anyone, anywhere.” Marsh, 65, from east London, lost her privately rented home in her 50s after her marriage ended, then became ill with epilepsy and arthritis. “People think homelessness is something you’ve done to yourself, there’s stigma and misconception,” she says.

Though Marsh is now living in temporary accommodation in Newham, her housing situation could not contrast more with the popular image of a tenure defined by shoddy, unregulated properties and unscrupulous private landlords. Marsh is a tenant of Local Space, an innovative housing association that uses private finance to buy homes on the open market, refurbishes the properties and leases them back to the council as temporary accommodation. Read the rest of my piece on the Guardian’s housing network.

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.

Neets: “Unemployment knocked my self-esteem..I wasn’t good enough at anything.”

William Wright left his Somerset school with a handful of GCSEs. Confused about what to do after school, he felt his teachers had “given up” on him. Wright found temporary work as a plasterer but lacked the qualifications for a permanent job. Unemployed and uncertain, he fell into a vicious circle; being jobless destroyed his confidence and made him feel depressed, which made it difficult to find work. Now 26, he says: “I felt like a failure. Unemployment knocked my self-esteem and made me feel like I wasn’t good enough at anything.”

One million 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK are not in education, employment or training, just as William was. Read more here in my piece from the Guardian on Saturday.

And in the same youth supplement this piece by Kate Murray, who also blogs on this site, explores how to restore young people’s faith and involvement in politics with comments from MPs – including children’s minister, Tim Loughton – youth workers and community activists.