Tag Archives: mental health

A stepping stone to success: new mental health support for women

Being able to do her own washing and having responsibility for her personal possessions symbolised the freedom Michelle Stevens* wanted but was denied in institutional care. Stevens features in my latest Guardian article (screenshot above). Her severe mental health problems meant she was in and out of residential care and mental health wards for a decade. She recalls staff shouting at her and living circumstances that were “very closed up and not nice at all”.

Today, however, Stevens says she is “much happier and freer”. She has a bedroom in a large double-fronted Victorian house – and she loves the garden at her supported living home in West Norwood, south London, which is run by social care provider Certitude. “[It] is cleaner than other places I have been, and has nicer facilities,” says Stevens.

She enjoys socialising – with the 11 other residents and locally – and for the first time in three years, she does her own washing and is trusted with her belongings.

The women-only housing is designed for those with enduring and complex mental health issues who may be stuck in restrictive environments. Certitude provides support while First Priority, a housing association, manages the tenancy agreements. The home opened in September 2016 and residents, who are mostly in their 30s and 40s, benefit from individualised support that is rarely offered in residential or inpatient care.

I’m really grateful to all the women who shared their experiences for the story and talked about the “good road ahead”, as Michelle put it, which now seems to be ahead of them. Read the rest of the article here.

*Not her real name

Men and mental health

As a qualified nurse I have seen at first hand the impact of bullying on a person’s self esteem and self worth. I have seen people self harm – colleagues and staff – and lost friends through suicide. I never become desensitised to this and hope I never will.

Although as a nurse I have to be dispassionate it is never easy to not ask myself could more have been done? Should more have been done? The nurse has feelings too. My lifetime’s work as a mental nurse has not only been confined to the hospital.

Many years ago I realised that my work needed to reach out to all areas of society if real change was to happen. Over the past 10 years I have spread the anti bullying message through the media, and promoted more understanding of mental health.

I have used my clinical knowledge and personal “lived experience” to de-stigmatise mental illness and encourage people to be more open and seek help at the earliest opportunity. This is particularly pertinent with young men who are statistically half less likely to visit their GPs for mental health concerns than women. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse, drugs, self harm and suicide is often the ‘coping’ mechanism of men to mental illness. Many are in denial and this denial can often be fatal.

It is with this in mind that I have tried to creatively tackle stigma and discrimination away from the usual clinical set up. To normalise mental health is to eradicate the myths and bring it out from the inner walls of the percieved ‘asylum’ It is all about encouraging people to view mental health as being no different to physical health, both sides of the same coin so to speak. More importantly neither working as effectively without the other, each influencing the other.

A long time ago I realised the power of the media to inform and form opinions, and challenge damaging stereotypes. I decided to focus my mental health anti stigma approach on tv, radio and in the newspapers. I advised the Zak Dingle ‘depression’ storyline in the TV soap opera Emmerdale to try to bring as much realism and sensitivity to the role as possible.

This work was well received by the viewers, yet there were still people who criticised me online, so called ‘keyboard warriors’ who challenged my views and questioned my knowledge and nursing experience. I had to quickly develop a thicker skin and told myself that even if people are critical, even if they are dismissive of what I do, at least it is encouraging discussion of mental health. it is bringing the subject into the open which is required to break down the myths and misconceptions. Often the criticism echoes people’s own inner fears about opening up. It is a struggle for them to acknowledge their own mental health immunity, especially in my own profession, particularly amongst men.

In spreading the anti-stigma message I have found myself in a range of diverse places. From the Houses of Parliament, universities and colleges across the country to the social clubs of the industrial north east where I live. The places may be different but the message remains the same. I have worked with scholars and gangsters, actors and musicians, writers and poets. Mental illness does not discriminate and any one of us could be the next victim. It does not respect sexual gender, social class, religion, ethnicity or culture. This is why my work has to reach out to all areas of society if it is to make a difference.

I am now liasing with the former MMA fighter Alex Reid to explore writing a book to reach out to men. Alex has also been on the receiving end of bullying through the media and we both share a passion to positively promote healthy mental and physical health. Maybe combining our life experiences will touch a chord with men? We are poles apart and yet we are so alike. We have both experienced bullying and both share a desire and determination to help others.

Alex’s world of MMA fighting attracts the kind of man I am trying to reach out to with my message. Men who dismiss mental illness or stress as being anathema to them and only affecting women. Physical strength and a ‘macho’ attitude to life is no defence against mental illness. I see a strength in men sharing their emotions and opening up about their feelings.

My own world of mental health nursing includes many men who are in denial of their own feelings and whose ‘big boys don’t cry’ outlook on life serves to perpetuate the stigma and misunderstanding of mental health even more.

How should the government overhaul mental health laws?

I’ve written a piece for the Guardian on what people who have experienced mental health issues, campaigners and mental health sector professionals want from new legislation.

The promise to overhaul the Mental Health Act 1983 is one of the few Conservative party manifesto pledges to survive the election. The decision to reform the act, which appeared in the Queen’s speech in June, means the government is committed to taking steps to overhaul the legislation in the next 12 months.

The 1983 act, which outlines how people can be involuntarily detained and treated in hospital for mental health issues, was amended in 2007. This included introducing the right to an independent advocate while in hospital; and the controversial community treatment orders that were criticised for failing to safeguard patients’ rights.

However, 30 years on, the legislation is regarded as outdated and in need of reform, and as one commentator says in today’s article: “The best way to prevent someone being detained is to prevent them from falling into a crisis in the first place.”

You can read the full piece here.

Helpline for older people: a friendly ear to 10,000 lonely callers every week

Anxiety and mobility issues mean that 76-year-old Anna Bolton* is usually housebound. But regular calls to a free, confidential helpline for older people have helped her “feel normal”.

Bolton’s mental health deteriorated after she was widowed two years ago. Although she has had some support from local mental health counsellors in her native north-east England, help from Blackpool-based The Silver Line was “invaluable” and more immediate than waiting months for a counselling referral.

The Silver Line, created in 2013 by Esther Rantzen (who also created Childline), is a free, 24-hour, 365-day-a-year helpline offering information and friendship, and signposts people to local organisations for support or social activities.

“There’s still stigma about mental health,” says Bolton. “It’s often easier to speak to a stranger, and nice to know you can call day or night.”

Bolton, who has no family nearby, contacted the helpline after it was mentioned by a receptionist at her GP surgery. She is among the 10,000 people who call the helpline – often referred to as the Childline for older people – every week.

For my full report on the charity and the rise in mental health issues among older people, see the Guardian social care pages.

New report demands more support for vulnerable children

Families at a Spurgeons’ children’s centre, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire (photo: Bronac McNeill)
Guest post by Ross Hendry, chief executive of Spurgeons Children’s Charity

New research, which we launch today, paints a picture of far too many young families struggling.

Parents with children under the age of 18 are increasingly anxious, according to Spurgeons’ Parent Report, and many feel that there is little support available.

The research shows half of parents worry their children have low self-esteem or are unhappy (46%) or are being bullied (46%)*; whilst 42% of parents think there is little to no support available from statutory, community or voluntary services to help with family challenges.

And it is many of the most vulnerable who are struggling the most. The ones who cannot or do not have a strong, stable and supportive network of family and friends to turn to. These are the families we work with, day in, day out – their children are among the 4 million living in poverty in the UK today. They are the families for whom support seems very distant and hard to attain just when their needs seem to be increasing.

What’s important is that families get the support they need when they need it. And that’s where charities like ours come in. Spurgeons Children’s Charity is driven by its mission to improve the lives of families and children who are struggling to cope; and to see every child given the chance of a hope filled future.

It is 150 years since we were first founded, but we still work at the heart of communities to improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children and families in England. Our focus is supporting families who struggle to support themselves through intervention and help that centres on the child.

The reality is, despite the immense wealth and opportunities for social mobility, life for some families is as tough today as it was when we were first established. Inequality today may look different; we may know more about causes and solutions; we may spend more time talking and writing about it; but it is still an enduring social and economic scar on our society.

We offer a range of different services across the country. For example, our 23 children’s centres support parents with young children to access the help they need, ensuring poverty and deprivation don’t become barriers to a better future. We work with local partners in communities with high levels of deprivation across the UK, supporting parents and their children from pre-natal stage up to the age of five.

When parents need to develop new strategies for dealing with issues; or they feel they maybe aren’t coping as well as they could, our support worker teams are there. Sometimes just to listen; but often to provide practical support and advice too. There are a range of parenting courses; opportunities to stay and play and a chance to meet and talk with other parents.

The chance to access peer to peer support can be invaluable and a life line for many parents who often feel alone. This is true for both mums and dads and we’re keen to recognise the important roles fathers play in their children’s lives. Our Saturdads project, which started in 2009 and worked with 89 dads last year alone, helps fathers develop stronger, positive relationships; build peer support networks; and generally build their confidence as a parent. Too often public funded services are portrayed as places of dependency when the reality is a timely intervention can be the route to flourishing, maturity and development for parents and children.

Spurgeons works to support families (photo: Bronac McNeill)

The Parent Report we publish today gives us an opportunity to compare the views of the wider parent population to our own insight. From parent feedback at our services, through to safeguarding reporting, we are able to draw out comparisons and identity some common themes. What we do know from the work taking place is that it’s not always easy for families to reach out.

All too often, parents are afraid to engage. For whatever reason, whether its concern over how they will be perceived, or feeling like they have somehow failed, we’re often the last place they turn. It’s not uncommon for us to be told by parents that they wished they’d reached out sooner. But the question we need to ask is ‘why aren’t they?’

We need our services, and those offered by others like us – from government, charities, schools and GPs – to be recognised as the safe and reassuring places we believe them to be. Where parents can take their children and be free from judgement at a time in their life when they need it most.

It’s only fair that we all accept some responsibility with this – if parents don’t feel that they can access the support available, what can we do differently to help them on their way? More awareness maybe; more accessibility for the isolated and hard to reach groups most definitely; but maybe it’s more than that.

In a world where they are so many expectations and pressures, living up to a perfect ideal can make a tough job even harder. From our part, we want to ensure there is always someone there to support families – especially those in greatest need – with good information, advice and meaningful support.

About the research
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,842 GB parents with children under 18 years of age. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21st – 27 April 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
* When asked about the three issues they are most concerned about for their children, either now or in the future.

The disability and employment gap: interview


Around 49% of disabled people in the UK aged 16–64 are in work, compared with 81% of non-disabled people, according to government figures.

The government has said it wants to narrow this gap (the figure has remained the same for decades) but at the same time its various policies and cuts relating to disabled people undermine this aim. A recent government green paper on work, health and employment, proposes to help at least 1 million disabled people into work, but has met with a lukewarm response from campaigners.

This was the context to a recent interview with Gareth Parry, the chief executive of employment organisation Remploy, which has £50m of contracts from central and local government to help disabled people get jobs or support them back into work.

Parry, who worked his way up Remploy after starting as a trainee almost 30 years ago, has depression, something that he says gives him a more personal insight into his job running employment support organisation (“It reinforced the importance of organisations like Remploy; work gave me routine, structure, focus, when everything else in my life was in chaos”).

He is a forthright speaker about how his personal experience influences his role at the helm of an organisation aiming to support people with mental health issues; he wants more senior executives to be open about mental ill-health, for example.

The organisation, however, has its critics. While Remploy was launched by the postwar government in 1945 to give disabled second world war veterans sheltered employment, the last factories closed in 2013 in line with the idea that mainstream employment was preferable to segregated jobs. Yet many felt the closures abandoned disadvantaged people.

More recently, in April 2015, Remploy was outsourced to a joint venture between US-born international outsourcing giant Maximus – which has come under fire as the provider of the Department for Work and Pensions’ controversial “fit for work” tests – and Remploy’s employees, who have a 30% stake in the business. Critics say that being owned by Maximus undermines Remploy’s status as a champion of disabled people.

Parry rejects such suggestions: “I can understand why people would see it that way, but we have a strong social conscience, the employee ownership keeps us focused on that, the profits don’t go overseas to America, they go back into the [Remploy] business.”

Longer term, Parry believes Remploy could take on international work, like advising other countries on closing sheltered factories. He adds: “Our mission around equality in the workplace has always been and is within the confines of the UK, but if we want to make a real difference in society in the UK, the opportunity we have now is to say ‘why stop there?’” Future issues in employment support, he adds, include sustaining an ageing workforce, with help for issues like dementia in the workplace and other age-related conditions.

In terms of other changes, Parry’s words on the rise of online support (as opposed to face to face advice) reflect a general trend towards more online and digital support: “I’m not suggesting online will replace face-to-face services, but the idea of giving the power of choice to the individual as to how they access services is meaningful”.

Remploy is almost unrecognisable in terms of its remit, ownership structure and operations since its inception more than 70 years ago; as the government and local government contracts on which it once relied are dwindling, it will be interesting to see where the next few years take Remploy – and, most importantly, those it helps.

The full interview is here.

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

In limbo: life for people with learning disabilities moving out of hospital units

Today's Guardian article
Today’s Guardian article

The government promised four years ago to move people from treatment and assessment units following BBC Panorama’s exposure of abuse at the privately run Winterbourne View.

The preventable death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk, who drowned in a Southern Health trust unit in Oxfordshire three years ago, and the subsequent Justice for LB campaign, further fuelled demands for action and accountability over the treatment of learning disabled people. In October, NHS England and council leaders set out a £45m plan to close England’s last NHS hospital for people with learning disabilities, plus up to half the 2,600 beds in the units.

But according to the latest figures, in June more than 2,500 people were still languishing in such units as the pace of change is so slow.

My piece in the Guardian today focuses on what happens to people as they are moved out of these secure hospital facilities and back “home” – “into the community”.

Some, like Ben Davis, who has autism and complex needs, are passed from pillar to post as suitable local support just doesn’t exist. Family-led research published today by charities Bringing Us Together and Respond highlights the problems for people like Ben.

Ben was admitted to an assessment and treatment unit (ATU) miles from his home after his first supported living placement broke down. After the ATU, he moved to a newly built flat nearer his family but that support has now also broken down. He has to move again, into temporary accommodation, while care commissioners organise the next option.

When I interviewed Ben’s mother, Catherine, she was both eloquent and outspoken as she described how the human rights of her son were being eroded after he was repeatedly failed by the very system designed to support him.

This is where we are today. Upwards of 2,500 people stuck in inappropriate, discredited care, and the strong will to get them out is being undermined by the lack of a clear way.

And meanwhile, many parents – every single one of whom has spent years relentlessly fighting for the right support – feel they cannot always openly challenge the authorities, such is the fragile and often hostile relationship between families and commissioners of care.

* Names and details in the article have been changed

* Read the full Guardian piece here and the check this for reports by Bringing Us Together and Respond on which the article is based

Mental health beds shouldn’t be so hard to find

Mersey Care's Clock View development, which helps boost local mental health provision
Mersey Care’s Clock View development, which helps boost local mental health provision

About 500 mentally ill people travel more than 30 miles for an inpatient bed every month, such is the scarcity of local provision.

My piece in the Guardian today reflects longstanding concerns most recently outlined in a report from the independent commission into adult acute mental healthcare, supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and led by ex-NHS chief executive Nigel Crisp. The report demands include a deadline of October 2017 to stop the practice of sending severely ill patients miles from home.

Some areas are blazing a trail, however, when it comes to boosting local acute beds. Existing examples of good practice include Mersey Care NHS trust’s £25m purpose-built, short-stay mental health inpatient unit, Clock View. Then there’s Tile House supported living project in King’s Cross, London, which reduces hospital admissions for people with serious mental health conditions, aiming to move them into independent housing and work.

For more, read the piece the full Guardian piece here

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