Tag Archives: health

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.

Depression: when a bad day becomes a nightmare, and a wish list for youth mental health

To mark World Mental Health Day, two bloggers with experience of mental health issues share their thoughts on action. Here, campaigner Lol Butterfield writes about the fine line between “a bad day” and something more serious, while below, youth mental health campaigner Carrie Holroyd shares her 10-point wish list to boost youth mental health.

Lol Butterfield, Social Issue blogger, mental health campaigner
We all have mental health as well as physical health. They both work in correlation, two sides of the same coin. It’s World Mental Health Day today and I wanted to explore the question of when our mental health become mental ill health? When does having a bad day become a living nightmare? If our having a ‘bad day’ becomes more frequent, as sure as night follows day, we have reached what I call “my dark place”, clinical depression. It is a fine line between having the “blues” and clinical depression but once you have crossed that emotional line, you know where you are.

My own experience of depression seven years ago would have been not different to many other people’s experiences. Maybe the difference was that I was in denial for most of my decline into severe depression? With the benefit of hindsight now I was probably no different from many other men in that aspect, denial was my coping mechanism, I masked my symptoms thinking it would all go away. If only (it’s worth pointing out though, that often people do of course seek help when they experience the initial symptoms, men included).

There are a range of common symptoms associated with depression such as difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, not eating regularly or over eating (comfort eating) Our thoughts become very negative, we feel guilty over our words and our actions, we worry unecessarily. With depression the world around us becomes very dark and seeing the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ as the cliché goes is far from easy. In fact it is nigh on impossible to see any light when you have reached the stage of severe depression, darkness is everywhere. The world feels like a dangerous place, it gives no quarter and does not take prisoners.

If you experience the above symptoms, or others such as becoming over emotional, irritable, having panic attacks, then seek help. Thoughts of self harm, or even suicide, will set alarm bells ringing louder than St Paul’s Cathedral. These are warning signs that help is required – and required quickly. Unfortunately when it comes to mental health men have a tendency for self denial.

As a consequence we have twice as many women then men visiting their GPs for mental health concerns even though both experience the same problems. With men it is often the outdated and totally ludicrous “big boys don’t” cry attitude. If more men had cried, and sought help sooner, we would have fewer cases of male depression. And frankly men would now be living meaningful lives instead of dying without hope as a consequence of taking their own lives, particularly young men. This is the tragedy.

So where do men seek help? The GPs surgery, as has been well-documented, is not frequented as much by men as women so we have to be creative in seeking alternatives. There are many different projects looking at mens health in particular around the country, these are usually organised and run by Primary Care Trusts. These will focus on “wellness” and “wellbeing” and promote eating a healthy diet and exercise, alongside checking blood pressures and weight. Again the important link between good physical health and mental health is being recognised.

Locally where I live on Teesside we have a Mens Health Day once a month at the Riverside stadium, home of Middlesbrough football club. These sessions are free. Men are more likely to go to an environment they feel comfortable with such as a football club, or even a social club, to discuss mental health issues because of the shame, fear and stigma.

As for me, part of my recovery involved attending my local gym. This is something I would recommend to anyone. The exercise combined with the social aspect of meeting friends and talking significantly lifted my mood and confidence level.

I would liken acknowledging you have depression to carrying an umbrella in a rainstorm. By acknowledging you have this problem you are prepared and protecting yourself from its effects. You are accepting it is there and needs to be addressed. You are proactively dealing with the problem. There are certain things we can all do to protect ourselves from poor mental health such as eating healthily, having a good regular sleep pattern, social contacts with friends, and physical exercise. These are all protecting factors against depression. And what I would see as probably the most important is sharing our worries, our feelings, with others close to us.

As the old adage goes “A problem shared is a problem halved” – in the case of depression this cannot be reinforced enough. I have survived to tell the tale, but sadly many others don’t.

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Blogger and mental health activist Carrie Holroyd
My 10 wishes for youth mental health, by Carrie Holroyd
1. The government should increase access to and availability of psychological therapy for young people with mental health problems. Prescribing psychiatric medication may be a quick and cheaper solution but doesn’t always help young people with complex problems.
2. More support in schools; with three children in every classroom having a diagnosable mental health problem, I believe there should be more in-school counsellors and training for staff on how to best support young people with mental health problems.
3. Empower us! Being young and having a mental health problem can be very disempowering, involving us in our own mental health care and increasing participation can make a huge difference.
4. Not everything is a symptom. When you have mental health problems everything you say, do, believe in can be inappropriately construed as a symptom of your illness. Having friends, family and professionals scrutinise you constantly can get very frustrating.
5. Don’t lower your expectations. Just because I have a mental health problem doesn’t mean I can’t work, study, socialise and have a fulfilling life. Things may be a bit more difficult for those of us with mental health problems but it doesn’t mean people have to lower their expectations of what we’re capable of. Many of my peers have been told by friends, family and professionals that they can’t pursue a certain career or study because of a mental health problem. Imagine how horrible it is to be told that at a young age.
6. I’d like to see people ‘open up’ about mental health problems. Don’t be so afraid to talk about it, it’s not as scary as the media can make out.
7. Don’t believe everything you hear. There are many myths surrounding mental health problems that are frankly ridiculous and increase stigma. Read up on mental health and educate yourself.
8. Early intervention is important. So many people find they don’t receive adequate support until they reach crisis point, this has to change. Early intervention can cut down on hospital admissions and prevent problems escalating into more severe forms of mental ill health.
9. Bridge the gap between child and adult services. In some parts of the country young people must leave child and adolescent services (CAMHS) at 16 and cannot use adult services (AMHS) until they reach 18.
10 . Treat young people who present at A&E for self-harm with respect and dignity, don’t dismiss them or deem them “attention seeking”.

Public health: councils have the will, if not the way

“Smokers Wanted”, announced the sign above an information stall at a sixth-form college in Swindon. The quirky take on the usual stop-smoking message drew students’ attention to the public health campaign by multi-agency group the Swindon Tobacco Control Partnership. Read the rest of my piece on the Guardian Local Government Network today.

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.

A sporting chance for the homeless

Eric Houghton, the ex-homeless organiser of the Homeless Games held in Liverpool last week: “Sport can give homeless people a sense of self-worth."

Any mention of “the games” and all eyes look to east London and this week, in particular, towards the newly-opened retail mecca and gateway to the games – Westfield.

But last week, the home of “the games” was the north west, as Liverpool hosted the second annual Homeless Games, a unique event that involved more than 400 people and has been dubbed locally as the Homeless Olympics.

Compared to next year’s sporting extravaganza, last week’s event might be short on history, size, razamatazz, budget and wholescale regenenerative impact, but it has heart and drive and the potential to support people towards a more stable life. It also boasts some native Liverpudlians and Olympic athletes as patrons (gymnast Beth Tweddle, boxer David Price and former high jumper Steve Smith).

Over two days last week, more than 400 people – those over 18-years-old who are homeless, or have been homeless in the last two years – participated in swimming, football, cycling, badminton. Alternative sporting events like chess, pool and tiddlywinks were also held at the competition at Wavertree Sports Park.

Eric Houghton, 46, from Anfield, began the Homeless Games after taking part in the 2002 Homeless World Cup. The father-of-two, now a support worker for homeless people, became homeless after family bereavements led him to spiral out of control and downward into alcohol abuse. When he got involved with the Homeless World Cup in 2002, the sporting and empowering event was the pivotal spark he needed to regain stability in his life.

Wanting to use the same approach on a more regional level, Houghton used a start-up grant from Cosmopolitan Housing Association to put together the first games last year. Competitors were given the opportunity to benefit from health services such as sexual health advice, diabetes screening and help with stopping smoking or tackling substance abuse.

Competitors and organisers at last week's Homeless Games in Liverpool

Houghton says: “Getting involved in something positive like sport can give homeless people the sense of self-worth and community that they need. Although the Games only lasted for two days, we hope the effects will last a lot longer, and show people how much they can achieve.”

Local organisations including housing associations, police, health and the city council helped support the event and there’s a short film here, made last year:

“As a child, I didn’t know what stigma meant – but I certainly knew how it felt”

Guest blogger Lol Butterfield, a mental health campaigner and qualified mental health nurse, explains his involvement with a national drive to tackle the stigma suffered by people with mental health issues. The campaign is driven by service users. Butterfield, who lives in Teeside, has written an autobiographical book which describes his experience of growing up with a mentally ill parent.

Lol Butterfield, Social Issue guest blogger, mental health campaigner
“He must have been insane to have done that!” Sadly, an all too familiar response following reading about a particularly vicious assault or murder, in the newspapers. The reality is usually different though and, statistically, 95% of serious crime is carried out by people who do not have a clinical diagnosis of mental illness, those who are not therefore “insane.” They are “bad not mad”. So why do we discriminate?

People experiencing mental illness are more likely to be the victim, rather than the perpetrator, of a serious crime. This criminalisation, mainly through the media, was one of the reasons I became involved in Time to Change and its Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP).

LEAP is an advisory group of 12 people who shape the Time To Change programme, England’s largest mental health anti-stigma campaign. Time to Change began in 2007 funded through the Big Lottery and Comic Relief with £20 million of investment. Us “Leapsters” have extensive experience and knowledge of mental illness and a passion to put the record straight. We act as campaign ambassadors and spokespeople. With a diverse mix of expertise and good links to service user and carer networks, we work towards ensuring that service user and carers needs are at the heart of the campaign.

Over 30 years I’ve spent time working in mental health services as a qualified nurse. I have seen daily the stigma and discrimination faced by those who experience mental ill health and their families.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of this stigma myself. I experienced mental illness myself when in 2004 I had to take time off work with severe depression. I have worn the shoes of the nurse, and the patient. I can empathise with the one in four of the population who have also found themselves mentally unwell at some point in their lives.

My father also experienced mental illness and as a small child I recall the stigma surrounding this growing up in a small mining village in the north east. As a young boy I did not understand what the word stigma meant but I certainly knew how it felt at that time.

I have spoken to people who have been laughed at on the bus or been called names because people know they have mental health conditions. I know of those who have ever been told to sit in other areas of a pub, who have not applied for jobs because they fear being rejected when they disclose their mental health background. These people are vulnerable to abuse because their mannerisms. Ironically these mannerisms are often caused by their medication rather than the condition itself.

I became involved with LEAP because I saw an opportunity to positively and constructively use my experience, as both a nurse and someone with experience of mental ill-health, to make a difference.

I have presented at conferences telling my story and promoting the campaign message. I’ve taken part in TV and radio interviews, visited schools and colleges to raise awareness. Until recently, I was writing a bimonthly column for the local newspaper where I live in Teesside with the aim of tackling the negative stereotypical coverage we see all too often.

Three years ago, I decided to write Sticks and Stones, my autobiography, as another way of spreading the anti-stigma message. my childhood memories of growing up with a father who experienced mental illness and the stigma my family faced and I myself felt as a child. For me writing the book was also about encouraging others to follow my lead by using myself as a positive role model (ie someone who is trained as a mental health nurse and has experienced mental illness. I am very open about this in order to promote more acceptance from others)

Individually as well as collectively we can and will make a difference no matter how small. With imagination and creativity we can impact in those areas of society that discriminate and stigmatise.

It has not always been easy. The work I do can be stressful because often it is real people with real experiences at the core of what we do as a group, and I do as an individual. I have at times to be mindful of my own limitations and avoid pushing myself into the “dark place” of clinical depression again. That said my work gives me so much satisfaction and pleasure. To know my words and actions have made others think differently around mental health, and act differently in their treatment of those who are unwell, is reward in itself.

The work of LEAP has made a difference in that dedicated time and effort has ensured that the message is being delivered in many creative, diverse ways that otherwise may not have been. As Leapsters we cover all parts of England to touch as many people in as many regions as possible. Touching hearts and minds, promoting tolerance and understanding of mental ill-health. I believe we are teaching the next generation to act and behave differently, changing attitudes for the better.

Care: money talks but standards should matter more

Freelance journalist and editor Kate Murray
It was when the care home manager started to talk about staff training that the alarm bells sounded for me. Not because I didn’t want the people who would be caring for my mother to be well trained – far from it. It was his reasons for ensuring all his staff had a certificate to their name that I found so worrying. “It’s a competitive business,” he told my brother and me. “Our people have to have those qualifications. That’s what other places have and we can’t afford to fall behind.”

I found his unashamed concern for his bottom line shocking. But I could also see why he was so keen to bring the business in. At some £550 a week for a place in an establishment like his – although he was prepared to haggle to get us to sign on the dotted line – there are serious amounts of cash at play.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t go for the care home in question, plumping instead for an even more expensive option where we felt happier with the atmosphere and the care on offer. But my experience of choosing a care home, which came just before Andrew Dilnot released his recommendations on paying for care, showed me that money talks – even when it should be the standard of care that we should really be concerned about.

When his report was published, Dilnot rightly pointed out that the issue of funding adult social care had been ignored for too long. He proposed that the costs an individual has to pay for his or her care should be capped at £35,000. Many have agreed, arguing that it’s unfair that people who’ve saved all their lives, or worked hard to pay for a home, should be forced to lose most of what they had hoped to pass on to their families.

But for me, it’s not inheritance rights that matter. It’s simply that as things stand, where so many people self-fund their care, we’ve created a market that has spiralled out of control. While the state has stood by, determining that only the worst-off will have their costs made for, care for the elderly has become essentially a private matter.

It’s a world in which staff costs are pushed down so hard that frankly it’s no surprise quality can be so poor. One in which the push for growth can become so all-consuming that, as with Southern Cross, it leads to failure. And one where the prices are so sky high that care home managers seem to believe that relatives will want to haggle over prices rather than talk about how they maintain their elderly residents’ dignity and quality of life.

Establishing a system such as Dilnot recommends, in which people knew how much they would have to pay for their care in later life, would not just allow families to plan for their old age. It would also allow us to concentrate on the things that really matter: good quality care, with respect for the individual.

Care for those who need it should not be about having to worry about the invoice at the end of the month.

The artists redrawing our perceptions of disability

Bengali Welcome, by David Constantine

Photographer David Constantine – he’s the creator of the arresting and uplifting image above, Bengali Welcome, above – has a theory as to why his subjects relax once they’re in front of his lens; his wheelchair breaks the ice.

Constantine’s work is being shown as part of the inaugural Bloomsbury Art Fair that opens today at the Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, London. As well as works by popular artists Banksy and Damien Hirst, there are pieces for sale by new and emerging artists. The three-day charitiable event raises money for spinal injury-related charities.

Constantine, for example, began taking pictures as a teenager and sold his bike to buy his first camera. While on a working holiday in Australia in 1982 he broke his neck in a diving accident and became quadriplegic. Paralysed from the shoulders down, he gave up photography for a year. But while he wasn’t able to pick up his camera, he continued to “see” images. As he writes on his website: “During that year I realised that I was still ‘seeing’ pictures, choosing images in my head even to the point of deciding on film types and composition I would use for a particular shot. The only thing I lacked was the physical ability to use a camera. I realised that this was a ridiculous reason for giving up and all it need take was some adaptations to my camera and wheelchair to enable me to take pictures.”

Exactly a year to the day of his injury he began the process of taking pictures again. He travels with his work for Motivation, the international disability charity he co-founded, and his main subjects are people in their own environments. As he says, “the disadvantages I foresaw with my photography after becoming a wheelchair user have turned into advantages.” He has developed different skills and enhanced others: “I am so conspicuous that it has made me bolder, I am happy to go and ask someone for their picture. If I can’t communicate verbally I make it very obvious that I would like to take their picture, people make it quite clear whether they are happy for me to photograph them or not.”

Love, by Sophie Morgan

Among the participating artists is Sophie Morgan, who was runner up to Britain’s Missing Top Models. Morgan had a car accident in 2003 that left her paralysed and in a wheelchair for life. Her beautiful piece, Love, is above.

Morgan’s website declares that she is (in this order) an “Artist, Portraitist, Writer, Arts Psychoth

How the housing safety net is shrinking further

As councils tighten eligibility criteria for housing at the same time as benefit cuts hit, charities warn of an increase in homelessness. With the trend growing for councils to overhaul their allocation policies, there are fresh concerns about people being forced into the unaffordable private rented sector or pushed out into cheaper suburbs. Read my Guardian piece here.

Life stories: freeing the minds of dementia sufferers

It was only a picture of a gurgling baby. But to one elderly woman with dementia, it meant the world. “She had dementia, was in a care home and was past the stage where she could really have a conversation,” says Helen Bate. “But she just fell in love with that photo. She would try and wipe the baby’s dribble off, or feed it chocolate. It’s just an image – but it had the power to really engage her and she’s been able to talk to it.”

Bate is founder and managing director of Pictures to Share, an innovative social enterprise creating picture books and other resources for people with dementia. She’s a passionate advocate of people with dementia, who she argues shouldn’t be shut off from the world of books and art just because of their condition. “People make too many assumptions about people with dementia,” she says. “There’s often a lack of imagination in their care. If someone liked looking at good painting, they are not going to lose that when they are in a care home. They may not be able to read any more but they can still enjoy looking at the pictures in our books.”

Bate was inspired to start the business after her own mother, a dementia sufferer, enjoyed looking at a scrapbook Bate’s daughter had put together. “There was nothing else out there,” she says. her first three books were published in 2006 and, thanks in part to charitable sponsorship, she has now produced a total of 11, all designed to combat the isolation and depression which can so often be associated with dementia. The organisation has diversified into producing artwork and is now working on dvds.

“If you go into some care homes, it’s almost as if they assume that because people are old and have dementia, all they want to look at on the walls is pictures of the royal family, wartime or old street scenes. It’s pigeonholing everyone into a very narrow category.” The Pictures to Share books cover everything from sport to shopping and from the world of work to travel.

There’s diversity too in the choice of images: colour and black and white photos both old and new are mixed with reproductions of paintings. The key criterion is that all of the images should be powerful and easy to understand to prompt memories, a chat or simply a smile. “Because of their dementia, certain things won’t work if they are too complex,” says Bate. “And we have to be careful about showing pictures people might get worried about. For example, with a picture of children paddling in the sea where you can’t see any adults around, people could get quite distressed because they think the children are in danger.”

I tried out three of the books with my mother, who has multiple dementia. I was unsure how she would react, but I was delighted to find that the pictures inside captured her imagination. She used to be a great traveller, so it was perhaps inevitable that the biggest hit was the travel book. Its shots of the Taj Mahal and train, plane and ship journeys, really got my mum chatting.

The feedback from other users suggests my mum’s response is not unusual. “It opens the channels of communication that are a bit stuck,” she says. “Relatives find them really useful to get a conversation going, which can be tricky for people with dementia.”

For relatives and carers perhaps the most powerful thing about the books is that they remind us all that behind every person with dementia is an individual with their own interests, likes and dislikes and their own life story. They are not all the same, so let’s free our imagination – and theirs – as we care for them.