Category Archives: Volunteering

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

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.

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.

Fundraising: how to make friends and influence people

Given the dire state of funding in the charity and public sector, fundraisers (and by that I mean staff and volunteers – not chuggers) are working overtime with some fantastically inspiring and engaging events, some of which I’ve featured on this blog. One caught my eye, not least because its title sounds like a cross between a very fine record and a throat spray.

The Largactyl Shuffle is a series of regularly-held and increasingly popular guided walks, the brainchild of the brilliantly creative user-led charity CoolTan Arts which clearly has its tongue in its cheek and its feet in its walking boots. The charity’s event is named after the anti-psychotic drug, Largactyl; the medication’s possible side effects can include a distinctive shuffle.

A piece of CoolTan art

The guided stroll on Saturday October 15th is being held to mark World Mental Health Day, which is on the previous Monday (October 10th). The five-mile guided sponsored hike is from the Maudsley Hospital, Denmark Hill, south London, to Tate Modern, Bankside. The walks are gaining a reputation for being very social, entertaining events that bring together campaigners and raise the profile of mental health issues. The organisation was founded in 1990 by a group of artists who squatted in a suntan factory, which is how Cooltan Arts got its name.

An artistic walker at a previous Shuffle event

This year’s walk is entitled No Health without Mental Health and explores the history and social impact of the NHS since its inception in 1948. There will be breaks, poetry readings and other events along the route.

Comedian and broadcaster Arthur Smith, whose family and friends have experienced clinical depression, is the event’s patron this year. Smith’s fellow patrons at the charity are artist Maggi Hambling, TV chef Rosemary Shrager sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp, writer Ali Smith and novelist and Guardian columnist Clare Allan.

Advocating that mental wellbeing is enhanced by creativity, the arts and mental health organisation is run by and for people with mental distress. Its numerous workshops at its centre in Southwark’s Walworth Road include visual arts, batik, digital arts, video, poetry, and performing arts. There are also regular exhibitions, public art projects and websites which help break down the stigma of mental distress and the gallery and performance space offers other community projects a place to exhibit. The charity also runs volunteering schemes.

CoolTan Arts Largactyl Walkers at a previous event at the Maudsley Hospital

The walk, suitable for people with disabilities and wheel chair users, finishes with a reception and refreshments at Tate Modern.

• If you’re interested in taking part, download a form from www.cooltanarts.org.uk or call 020 7701 2696 or email info@cooltanarts.org.uk walkers must bring a packed lunch and drinks, wear suitable clothes and sensible footwear. The non-refundable registration fee is £5 unwaged or £10 waged.

Creativity in a good cause

A mini-post to bring you something I wish I could say I’d made earlier (given it’s the summer holidays and my kids are off school…). I mentioned this campaign on Twitter a few weeks ago, but liked the idea enough to share a couple of images of the creations already made:

The images here are from the Make With Me campaign, learning disability charity Mencap’s new make and bake appeal. The campaign encourages people to get creative with fundraising parties to show their support and raise money for the UK’s 1.5m learning disabled people.

For more inspiring pics and creative ideas check the campaign’s Facebook page along with some images on the online gallery, including a Bob the Builder in gingerbread..(this might have to become something of a pictorial theme for The Social Issue).

The big society bypass


Above, Ian Harvey, from heroin and rough sleeping to charity volunteer, gardening enthusiast and Chelsea Flower Show winner.

The big society concept might be a touch nebulous – as its creator Philip Blond effectively admitted this week – but one transparent element is the fact that volunteers are its backbone.

The drive is a potentially all-inclusive one as the big society dream is of a volunteering renaissance that unites the young (nothing else paid on offer), the more mature (nothing else to do in well-heeled retirement) and the professional (nothing as good as a bit of CSR in the city to justify that fat salary and boost the CV).

But any official messages about big society bypass a huge swath of society; the homeless.

The vulnerable are excluded from the big society agenda and a potential volunteering resource remains untapped, as new research published this week by homelessness charity St Mungo’s argues. The organisation suggests that volunteering can help the homeless move from social exclusion to being active in their community.

Its figures show that only 14% of around 200 St Mungo’s clients and staff surveyed (84 of the 200 were clients) think homeless people are included in society. The report from St Mungo’s, Enough Room: is society big enough for homeless people?, has been released to coincide with the charity’s action week to raise awareness about the social exclusion of the homeless. According to the latest figures, 3,975 people were seen rough sleeping in 2010/11 on the streets of London – a rise of eight per cent from the previous year.

The charity says there’s a real wish among those it supports to give something back. Of the homeless clients surveyed, 70% wanted to volunteer to “give something back to their local community” or to “help other people.”

Investing time in supporting vulnerable people to volunteer can bring long-term benefits – stability, greater self-esteem and social integration and the chance to develop new skills.

I recently came across the Crown Centre in the deprived area of Stonehouse, Plymouth, for example. The centre supports vulnerable people through projects such as the Plymouth Foodbank, ensuring those in crisis do not go hungry. Every week, the centre relies on its 47 regular volunteers to run coffee and lunch clubs supporting 120 service users. Half the volunteers have health or dependency issues and are “supported volunteers”, needing more guidance and supervision than their peers donating time for free.

Back in London, St Mungo’s client turned volunteer Ian Harvey (scroll up to the video above), is the kind of volunteer we could have more of. Ian, a former rough sleeper and ex-heroin addict, has been supported by St Mungo’s to work with the charity’s community gardening scheme, Putting Down Roots. Ian has tuned his life around with specialist support and from involvement in the volunteering scheme; not so long ago he was self-harming and sleeping on the streets, now he’s the proud owner of a silver award from the Chelsea Flower Show and is looking forward to winning gold next time.

Roger is another St Mungo volunteer, a former drug-user who slept rough, he volunteers for the charity’s employment team and encourages clients to improve their basic computer literacy skills. He explains: “I realised that the key to me moving on with my life was training and qualifying. It also became very clear that I would get nowhere without knowing my way around a computer …Since November last year, I have been volunteering for St Mungos’ employment team and have been helping more clients get online with weekly drop in sessions and support with basic computing courses.”

Lorette, a volunteer peer advisor with St Mungo’s resettlement service, explains the strength of the ex-homeless supporting those who still need support: “I think the client feels they can relate to you more if you have been through what they have. You can swap stories and experiences, which I think enables them to open up to you more…Volunteering is great for your self esteem and confidence, especially if you have been out of work for a long time, there’s new skills to learn, great people to meet and a great feeling of self worth that you really are helping people and doing something really worthwhile.”

Yet so far the big society drive has largely failed to include or capture the attention of the vulnerable. As the St Mungo’s research demonstrates, the neediest in society neither feel part of the campaign nor understand what it stands for (although frankly they’re not alone in that latter complaint). A big society, but one that’s currently too small for the vulnerable.

“The kid who talked of burning down the place is now volunteering to paint it…”

Hutton Hall Community Centre - Community Asset Transfer
Hutton Hall community centre, photos by Podnosh

A year ago it would have been pointless painting a mural on the wall of Hutton Hall; it would have been covered in grafitti within a day. But after the building was transferred to community group Comm:pact by Birmingham city council in April, youngsters treat it – and its new exterior artwork – with pride. Read about how to make community asset transfer work in my Guardian piece today.

Is Cameron’s ‘big society’ reserved for the rich?

A school-based performance of The Homophobia Project, by Peer Productions, a Surrey youth arts group supported by local philanthropy

Local philanthropy and volunteers have driven the ‘big society’ in Surrey for years. So is David Cameron’s flagship project only viable for affluent communities? England’s well-heeled home counties are the natural habitat of Cameron’s “big society”. The combination of a time- and cash-rich population and minuscule pockets of deprivation is more conducive to citizens becoming involved and running services than in more deprived areas. Click here to read the piece in Society Guardian today.

What no big society?

Amid the vibrations of doom and whiff of ennui surrounding anything stamped with the politicised big society seal, a new campaign tagged in plain terms as a grassroots effort to improve a neighbourhood is a bit of an attention-grabber.

Shockingly, no one’s claiming it’s part of some shiny new renaissance in volunteering that will allow the state to retreat on the sly, but a tried and tested idea, backed by an organisation that’s been doing similar, citizen-led work for years.

Quick – Dave’s on the line – he wants his big society back!

Today’s launch of Shoreditch Citizens – part of well-established community organisers programme London Citizens – follows an audit of 200 organisations in the east London area, plus 500 meetings to identify local issues that matter and train community leaders.

The Shoreditch arm is the latest chapter for London Citizens, an alliance of 160 groups representing faith institutions universities and schools, trade unions and community groups; the founding member is The East London Communities Organisation (Telco), the UK’s largest independent community alliance launched in 1996.

Shoreditch Citizens has high hopes in aiming to join forces to impact on poverty, poor housing and gang crime – around 75% of the area’s children live below the poverty line and four in 10 adults are unemployed. The campaign, funded by the Mayor’s Fund for London and £270,000 over three years from the community investment arm of Barclays Capital, also wants an alternative to the education maintenance allowance (EMA) to encourage young people to stay in education. There is also a plan to make Shoreditch a “Living Wage” zone, where everyone who works in the area can be sure to earn a decent amount to live on. The Living Wage campaign was first launched by London Citizens in 2001, which says it has won over £40 million of Living Wages, lifting over 6,500 families out of working poverty.

By December 2012, the Shoreditch engagement programme aims to train 300 community leaders from 30 civil institutions and hopes to impact on up to 15,000 families. All this is nothing if not ambitious, but if you don’t have goals…