Category Archives: Wellbeing

Campaigner Jonathan Andrews on the talents and skills of autistic people

Jonathan Andrews was once advised to hide his autism from prospective employers. Instead, he is making his name by doing just the opposite.

The 22-year-old recently won campaigner of the year at the European Diversity Awards 2016 and talked to me about his work for a Guardian interview.

He’s involved in a plethora of awareness-raising projects, including sitting on the first parliamentary commission on autism. He also advised the government on its green paper on work, health and employment, which is out to consultation until later this month.

The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.

He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”

An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”

What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.

He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”

He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”

In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.

The full interview is here.
You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonnyJAndrews

Unique art from survivors of brain injury

Artist Nick Mayers, a member of the Submit to Love studio collective.
Artists Nick Mayers, a member of the Submit to Love studio collective.

A unique art collective in London consisting of brain injury survivors is exhibiting its “unguarded, emotive” work for the first time.

The Submit to Love Studios, supported by brain injury charity Headway East London, is a creative space in Hackney for over 50 survivors of brain injury – barely any of the artists had practiced art before their injuries. The work of around 30 of the collective’s members is featured in a new exhibition that runs until 23 February at Stratford Circus Arts Centre.

MRI, by Graham Naylor, showing as part of an exhibition by brain injury survivors (credit: Headway east London)
MRI, by Graham Naylor, showing as part of an exhibition by brain injury survivors (credit: Headway east London)
Artist Jon Barry's work, Lady in Green, in progress.
Artist Jon Barry’s work, Lady in Green, in progress.
Birds, by Laura Wood
Birds, by Laura Wood

While many of the creatives have had solo exhibitions since joining the project, this is the first time they are showing work that outlines how their experiences, including recovery, have influenced their art. The show asks visitors to consider the question “how far can one life-changing incident be seen in the artistic work you create?”.

In a related event this Saturday, the collective, which began 10 years ago, is involved in an free art workshop at London’s Southbank Centre. The event involves the artists encouraging the public to participate in on the theme of “what love means to you” with contributions acting as the basis for a collaborative piece at the Submit to Love studio. The workshop takes place in the Clore Ballroom at Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 11am – 2pm and is recommended for ages six upwards.

Freckle Face, by Chippy Aiton
Freckle Face, by Chippy Aiton
Elvis in London, by Cecil Waldron
Elvis in London, by Cecil Waldron
Creature, by Ad
Creature, by Ad

According to Headway, survivors of brain injury are often excluded from society, have lost skills, occupations and cannot communicate as they used to; art is an outlet for communication and self-expression. The charity is keen to reposition art from a simple rehabilitation activity to “both a vocation and passion project”.

Three Chicks Going to a Do, by Tony Allen
Three Chicks Going to a Do, by Tony Allen

* The exhibition, sponsored by Hyphen Law, is open 9am-6pm (Mon-Sat) and 09.30am–2pm (Sun) until Tuesday 23 February 2017 and entry is free. Venue: Stratford Circus Arts Centre, Theatre Square, London E15

Street theatre focuses on social isolation

Two characters in a scene from pop-up street show The Loneliness Street Cabaret.
Two characters in a scene from pop-up street show The Loneliness Street Cabaret.

Are you too busy with tech to talk? How well do you know your older neighbours? Do you think your local community involves everyone in it?

A pop-up street theatre performance this week will focus on the epidemic of loneliness and the growing isolation of older people, as I explain on the Guardian website today.

A young audience member gets involved in a recent performance of the Loneliness Street Cabaret.
A young audience member gets involved in a recent performance of the Loneliness Street Cabaret.

The Loneliness Street Cabaret, an outdoor street performance from the Beautiful Mess Theatre Company, is showing from Tuesday to Thursday (4 to 7 October) as part of the month-long Age UK Lambeth’s Celebrating Age Festival in London.

The theatre performance, which takes place in different public spaces across the south London borough, is inspired by the fact that loneliness is increasing at a time when our our cities are becoming ever more crowded. The show has been developed using anecdotes, opinions and experiences of older people in south London.

A character is chastised in the Loneliness Street Cabaret for being too distracted by his phone to interact with people.
A character is chastised in the Loneliness Street Cabaret for being too distracted by his phone to interact with people.

The shows are performed in public spaces, from outside tube stations to public squares, in the hope that the shared experience of performance will spark the audience to have conversations and take action based on the show’s themes. Osborne says the aim is to provoke people to consider the issues highlighted by the performance: “It’s about your local community and how you fit within it,” says creative producer Chloe Osborne, “but also about what your responsibility is for ensuring that others belong in it too.”

You can read the entire piece here.

* All photos from the Beautiful Mess Theatre Company

What an ex-gangster taught me about standing up to stigma

Reformed hardman Chris  (centre) with Lol and his partner Clair at the Ley centre
Reformed hardman Chris (centre) with Lol and his partner Clair at the Ley centre

What do a mental health nurse and an ex-gangster have in common?

That was the question I was asking myself as I visited the Ley Community, a residential drug and alcohol rehab centre, with Chris Lambrianou, former henchman to the Kray twins.

I visited the Ley at the invitation of Chris, who volunteers at the centre; his life now is about as far removed from his past as is possible. The Krays ruled London’s gangland in the 1960s and were imprisoned for murder. Chris was present on the night Jack ‘the hat’ Mcvittie was stabbed to death. His presence and silence that night in naming Reggie Kray as the murderer resulted in Chris being jailed for 15 years.

Whilst in prison Chris, now 78-years-old, reflected on his life and the mistakes he had made. He wondered how he had found himself to be in such a position. Like many other prisoners Chris ‘found’ God. But unlike many others who use this as a cynical ploy to seek freedom early, Chris knew his life had to change and was determined to make that happen. He wanted to make a difference to others. On his release in the early 1980s he began working at the Ley. His voluntary work there includes accompanying people to court and generally giving them the encouragement to try and turn their lives around.

I had read about Chris’s work in his autobiography, The Kray Madness, and contacted him to discuss our mutual interest in helping people to turn their lives around. After a few phone calls, he invited me to Oxfordshire to a look around the Ley. The centre initially struck me as quite regimented, but it has to be that way to encourage the residents to make the efforts to come off drugs and show self discipline and determination. There is a strong emphasis on group discussions, peer pressure and support, openness and self responsibility.

We have different backgrounds and seemingly different areas of interest – me with mental health campaigning and Chris supporting the rehabilitation of people with addiction issues. Yet we both have a desire to use our life experiences to make a positive difference for others.

Chris has an influential role among young men because of his Kray connections, with much recent interest in his life thanks to the Tom Hardy film Legend – Chris advised on the movie. Chris is not volunteering as much at the Ley due to his age, but when he does he accompanies people to court, and generally encourages them to try to transform their lifestyles and behaviours. They see him as a positive role model and he can relate to them.

Supportive networks are vital to recovery and a focus on relationships is the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week next week. Social contact is the best way of breaking down barriers, misunderstanding, and ignorance of mental illness. It is important for us to have good relationships for our own mental health in the sense of talking and listening to each other.

My own work, for example, has been aimed at encouraging men to seek help early for mental health issues and self-harm. My most recent media advisory role was advising the storyline involving the ‘macho’ character Zak Dingle in TVs Emmerdale during his depression storyline.

Tragically we have very high rates of self-harm among young men in my native north east. Much of this is a consequence of the damaging ‘Big boys don’t cry’ attitude among men, and the damaging misperception that men expressing their feelings is a sign of weakness. This is something Chris would relate to in his own work.

Challenging stigma and addressing feelings of shame is something Chris and I share as a common goal.

Through social media, Facebook, and social contact, we are both starting to chip away at the damaging defensive layering common to all tough guys. We are trying to convince men who think they are somehow immune from mental illness that nothing could be further from the truth.

We have discussed the idea of a joint project, perhaps a book, to try to reach out to men in particular who self harm and feel stigmatised because of having mental illness. Together we are determined to make a difference; we have more in common then we think.

* You can find Lol on Facebook

Why the NHS needs more district nurses

The ageing population combined with the ongoing drive to keep people at home, not in hospital, reinforces the vital role of community nursing.

Yet as figures from the Royal College of Nursing show, the number of community nurses working in the NHS in England have almost halved in a decade; from 12,620 in 2003 to 6,656 in 2013.

As my piece on the Guardian website today explains, community nurses can be employed by NHS trusts, GPs, charities such as Dementia UK or private providers delivering NHS services. However, their numbers are falling. The decline might be attributed to primary care trusts transferring provision to other organisations under the government’s Transforming Community Services programme because those nurses moving to non-NHS providers are not captured in relevant workforce data.

The fall in numbers coincides with healthcare reforms that make their role even more important. “District nurses will be likely to play a significant role in the NHS reforms, particularly around new models of care that shift more care into the community,” according to Rachael Addicott, senior research fellow at health thinktank The King’s Fund.

Read the full piece here.

How arts therapy can support people with dementia

Working with memory triggers in a reminiscence arts session (photograph: Age Exchange)
Working with memory triggers in a reminiscence arts session (photograph: Age Exchange)

By 2025 there will be one million people with dementia in the UK, according to the Alzheimer’s Society; a project I reported on today for the Guardian online is proving the impact of arts-based therapy on people with the condition.

Take Eddie (not his real name). When he first met arts practitioner Jill, from London-based arts group Age Exchange, he was withdrawn and uncommunicative.

Eyes downcast, head bowed, hands clasped and legs crossed; Eddie, an introverted wheelchair user, had been in a dementia care home for a decade when he began sessions Jill.

Over six weekly reminiscence arts sessions – work that explores memories using creative activity – Jill noticed how Eddie became “awake, sitting upright in his wheelchair, trying to talk, being better at regulating his mood and behaviour … He felt safe enough to allow himself to express some of these stored up energies and feelings through movement and making sounds which freed him and allowed him to start opening up and connecting with people.”

A simple gesture after the final session – previously unimaginable – reflected the transformation. Jill recalls: “I was very touched as we said goodbye; he extended his right hand towards me, I took it and we shook hands.”

My piece today highlights the specialist practice of reminiscence arts; Eddie was among 200 older people involved in research into the method in Lambeth and Southwark, evaluated by experts at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can read the rest of the piece on the Guardian’s social care network.

Employers’ public health role

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

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

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

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

Art show celebrates diversity

Painting by Chantelle Bellinger, from the Nexus art group, Surrey.
Painting by Chantelle Bellinger, from the Nexus art group, Surrey.

The graceful depiction of birds, above, is among the art works on display in a new exhibition celebrating diversity.

I’m sharing some of the pieces here because I was taken by the broad range of subjects and contrasting styles of the artists. Most of the pieces are inspired by nature and natural landscapes.

The paintings were created by participants in the Nexus project, run by care organisation Surrey Choices, and are being exhibited at the Sunbury Embroidery Gallery until March 1 (entry is free). Nexus provides specialist support and activities for adults with physical disabilities and mild learning disabilities.

Work by Bryan Aldridge
Work by Bryan Aldridge
By Chantelle Bellinger
By Chantelle Bellinger
Painting by Marc Leosing
Painting by Marc Leosing
Artwork by Michael Somers
Artwork by Michael Somers
By Terry Prosser
By Terry Prosser

For information, see the gallery website.

Innovative project redistributes surplus food to needy

Food donated to FoodHub, for distribution to charities and food banks (pic: FoodHub)
Food donated to FoodHub, for distribution to charities and food banks (pic: FoodHub)

Christmas – for some a time of year to overindulge, for others a desperate effort to feed the family.

With a huge rise in the number of people in the UK relying on food banks, a new London project that is making good use of food left behind when people moving house by collecting it and donating it to food banks and charities.

The organisers, a company specialising in overseas moves, explains: “MoveHub and their partners noticed that families were forced to just throw large volumes of food when they moved abroad – due to customs restrictions – and decided that instead, this food should find its way to people who really needed it.”

The project estimates that the food thrown away during moves across the UK could fill 160 supermarket delivery vans each week. While it acknowledges it “can’t reverse food poverty in the UK”, the scheme is an attempt to “contribute to the organisations helping people get back on their feet”.

Among the charities benefitting from FoodHub is homeless charity Centrepoint.

It is estimated that around 3.5m tonnes of food is wasted every year in the UK and this latest drive is a welcome addition to schemes like the “community supermarket” plan, under which unwanted supermarket food is already re-distributed to needy families.

* This is the last Social Issue post for 2014 – the blog will be back in January. Thanks to everyone who has read, shared, contributed to, commented on and got in touch over the last 12 months, your support’s very much appreciated.

Mental health on TV: entertainment vs realism and sensitivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the reality.

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

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

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

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

I want these reasons to combine.

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