Tag Archives: mental health

Social networks and mental health: supportive environment or a stalking ground for cyber-bullies?

Bullying crushes a child’s self esteem and confidence. It can leave a child feeling alone, totally helpless, and with no one to turn to. In their childhood innocence and naivety some even blame themselves for their torment. Many schools now have robust anti bullying policies in the form of bullying charters.

We live in an age where teachers acknowledge widely the emotional needs of children more than ever before. Resources such as SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) provide increased emotional support in many schools.

As a consequence bullying has now left many classrooms, but not all. This is commendable but, not only do schools’ attitudes and actions in response to bullying vary considerably, is it enough?

And now in the age social networking sites it has insidiously entered the sanctuary of children’s bedrooms. Running away from the school environment and threatening bullies now leads straight to the bedroom, a once safe haven where a child’s computer suddenly provides no way of escape. Computers are the contemporary child’s toy and some may say the innocence of youth has died as a result. This year’s forthcoming Anti-bullying Week, for example, has a special focus on cyber-bullying.

These issues have been on my mind since the death of 14-year-old Hannah Smith who suffered relentless bullying online. Her death was not a stark reminder of how vulnerable our children are not protected from bullies even in the supposed safety of their own homes. There has been intense speculation and much knee-jerking as a result of her death, but the bottom line is that social media played a part in her suicide. Whatever happened, she was a vulnerable child.

But social networking sites can be so liberating for many providing an outlet for those who lack self confidence in face to face interactions and who might have smaller social networks than usual. Many can make friends and form relationships online that they would otherwise struggle to in school.

These sites can be very helpful, especially for those who lack social contact, or may have poor social skills, agoraphobia etc, but the flip side of the coin is the bullying issue. Reaching an acceptable compromise regarding social networking will not be easy because the genie has now been let out of the box, so to speak.

When experiencing low moods, your reality becomes alien to that of everyone else. I have always advised people to seek help at the earliest opportunity to prevent depression reaching this critical stage. And this is where social sites that support mental health can help.

There is the social site launched by comedian Ruby Wax, for example, Black Dog Tribe, “a place in which like-minded people can find their own ‘tribe’ and share experiences in a supportive online community through forums, blogs, daily news and mental health information”. Another example is Kent and Medway NHS Trust, for example, which is piloting Buddy, an online system that records mood changes. And there are a raft of support-specific online forums linked to various charities and support groups which can make all the difference to vulnerable people.

This is the positive aspect of these sites.

Yet it is too simplistic an argument that social media and networks alone can help prevent depression. An holistic approach can include talking therapies, physical exercise and medication, if appropriate. These therapies can support each other – medication, as I know from personal experience and from my nursing career, has its down side. It can also make your mood fluctuate wildly, become disinhibited and even suicidal. Having easy access to online support can, at times like this, be vital. These issues are brought into sharp focus by the news today that the number of people needing treatment for mental health issues will have increased by more than 2 million by 2030.

We should look closely at both the negatives and positives about social media and networks in relation to mental health – and ignore them at our peril. While it is also wrong to assume that social media alone can push someone towards mental health problems, excessive use of social sites, as is often reported, can itself lead to problems.

Children sitting for hours in front of a screen removes them from the social contact of others that will improve their face to face communication skills and confidence in later life. Effective communication involves eye contact, body language, and gesturing. All ignored when lying in bed hitting a keyboard in silent and lonely surroundings.

Cyber bullies and unpoliced social media sites populated by children (or those posing as children) are not part of a civilised society. We must make it all stop. Now.

The man dreaming of being ordinary – and the campaign to help him

An awareness-raising postcard by Cameron, 18: "Each fruit on my tree of life displays a message for me to follow. This helps me to mature and develop".
A postcard designed for a new disability awareness campaign launched today. “Each fruit on my tree of life displays a message for me to follow. This helps me to mature and develop”, says its creator Cameron, 18.

How many people aspire to be ordinary? Success is usually defined success as standing out from the crowd, being the focus of attention or doing something extraordinary.

But Shairaz’s wish is different.

Shairaz wants to be regarded as ordinary because, as he says, he and his peers are usually regarded as scroungers or superheroes.

Shiraz, who has a learning disability, says of the stereotypical perception of disabled people: “We shouldn’t only be portrayed when we do something amazing or something bad. We should also be portrayed when we are doing ordinary things. Most of us are not scroungers. It’s the government that has decided to offer us support, it’s not us begging. Many people can’t work and that’s not their fault, we shouldn’t be called scroungers.”

Shiraz is taking part in a new campaign launched today by the social care charity United Response. Along with a survey and a new report on attitudes to disability, there is an art project and exhibition from next week, Postcards From The Edges which focuses on the everyday lives and achievements of disabled people (see the examples on this page, view more on the charity’s dedicated project site and via this Guardian gallery).

The survey, report and artworks coincide with National Paralympic Day on Saturday, marking a year since the Paralympics – but the event’s impact may be fading, according to United Response’s survey. The aim of the survey, report and art project is to transform how the public sees disabled people.

For example, two thirds of the 1000 people surveyed say they see more disabled people in the real world than in the media, while four out of five say that the public does not know enough about disability.

While the research shows the Paralympics was a memorable event – Ellie Simmonds’ four gold medals is named as the best memory by 31% of respondents – less than one in five of respondents could name a disabled person who has become well-known in the year since the Paralympics. Meanwhile, 40% found it difficult to name a well known physically disabled person and only one in five could name a person with a learning disability.

The postcards, many of which will be showcased in an exhibition at Bankside Gallery in London, complements this research. The charity asked people – well-known or “ordinary”, with or without disabilities – to write or draw cards in any creative style. The only proviso was that the card design in some way responded to the question: “What do you want to tell the world?”.

United Response has collated the cards over the last eight months and the results – more than 550 pieces of art – are a snapshot of thoughts, hopes, fears, ambitions and everyday experiences of a wide range of people. There are submissions from older people with mental health needs, parents of children with autism, people with physical disabilities, children and social workers. Among the postcard designers are Paralympians Hannah Cockroft and Dame Sarah Storey, Olympian Sally Gunnell, Suede singer Brett Anderson and actor Emma Thompson.

An awareness-raising postcard by Scott, 19, from Staffordshire: "“My postcard is to try and educate people about autism and how others can be ignorant towards the condition”.
An awareness-raising postcard by Scott, 19, from Staffordshire: ““My postcard is to try and educate people about autism and how others can be ignorant towards the condition”.

The report from the charity’s campaigns panel (which Shairaz is a member of) underlines the messages from the survey and the art project. The publication, Superhumans or Scroungers, reveals the gap between the portrayal of the superhuman Paralympians and media coverage of disabled people.

“We shouldn’t be portrayed in just one light, as superheroes or scroungers,” says Shairaz about the report. “People should know more about our lives overall… I would just like to see us portrayed more as ordinary people. Yes we’re special in some ways, but so is everyone. It would be good to see television not just concentrating on our disability but on who we are and what matters to us, like the place we live. That would give everyone a chance to learn from different experiences and that might help everyone to stop generalising.”

The aim of the report and panel, Shairaz adds, is “to make people more aware of what disability is about…A lot of people have the wrong impression of people with disabilities. They think disabled people are all the same and should be classed under one branch. They don’t understand hidden disabilities, like my mental disability. A lot of people think that people with mental disabilities are crazy or stupid, but that’s not true.

“People make assumptions because they don’t understand. So I think the panel is about helping people understand and also telling them that we have rights and views and opinions. Our opinions count as much as able people’s opinions.”

The report stresses that media coverage of disability tends to focus on people with physical disabilities, meaning that people with learning disabilities, autism, mental
health needs and other hidden disabilities are “almost invisible”.

Shairaz and his fellow campaigns panel members also worry about the growth in news stories about welfare with, as the report states, a simplistic representation of disability creating “a polarisation of who is ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ of support”. The report explains, “it means there is very little attention given to ordinary disabled people or the positive contributions that they make”.

The postcards project ties into this, says Shairaz, because it offers people a wider vision of disability and of the achievements of disabled people in a positive, creative way. He adds: “It’s also good to tell people your experience, but nice to do it in a fun way… Life isn’t always serious and spilling your heart out. When people ask about my life I don’t say “Oh, I just mope about and feel sorry for myself”, I say I have fun too.”

Su Sayer, United Response’s chief executive co-founded the organisation 40 years ago when it was the norm for people with learning disabilities to be hidden away in large institutions. She adds: “While the last four decades have seen huge changes for many people with learning disabilities, there is still widespread prejudice and lack of understanding from the broader public. Many people still don’t understand much about disability or the lives of disabled people, let alone their achievements.”

A postcard by Yvonne J Foster, an artist living with depression: “I have depression and sometimes I am so overwhelmed with strong emotions that my body collapses."
A postcard by Yvonne J Foster, an artist living with depression: “I have depression and sometimes I am so overwhelmed with strong emotions that my body collapses.”
Postcard by artist Yvonne J Foster: "Sometimes I cannot cope with reality. It’s not safe for me to remember things that have happened so I create a safe place for myself in my head.”
Postcard by artist Yvonne J Foster: “Sometimes I cannot cope with reality. It’s not safe for me to remember things that have happened so I create a safe place for myself in my head.”
Postcard by artist Yvonne J Foster: “Psychiatric hospital shouldn’t have such a stigma. I was admitted twice last year and it was the safest place I could have been at the time”.
Postcard by artist Yvonne J Foster: “Psychiatric hospital shouldn’t have such a stigma. I was admitted twice last year and it was the safest place I could have been at the time”.

Sayer adds that the two extremes of how disabled people are portrayed – lionised as superhuman or criticised as scroungers – is “far, far from the reality of the overwhelming majority of disabled people today…’ordinary’ disabled people are still very absent from public life”.

Shairaz agrees. “It’s important to know that it’s not just the people who can do great things at sport who are important,” he says. “Everyone is a hero in themselves. My girlfriend says I can be a hero sometimes, because of the support I give her.”

* The Postcards from the Edges exhibition opens at Bankside Gallery in London on Tuesday 10 September and runs until Sunday 15 September. It will be followed by a showcase at the Sage in Gateshead (1- 4 October), the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bristol (private view on the evening of 23 September) and the Camp and Furnace Gallery in Liverpool (4-10 November).
* Find out more about the project by visiting the Postcards website.

How the media must mind mental health

Stephen Fry’s recent disclosure of his attempted suicide last year highlights that mental illness does not discriminate between the “haves” and “have nots”, the famous and the “ordinary”. None of us are immune from the feelings Fry described.

The representation of mental illness in the media in recent years (you need only think of Frank Bruno’s treatment by the tabloids), in television dramas and soaps has not, over many years been empathic. People with mental health issues seem to be either suicidal or mostly violent and dangerous – the two extremes of mental health geared more towards boosting viewing figures than portraying realism and authenticity.

These exaggerated displays of mental health only perpetuate the stigma and stereotypes. In fact it would be fair to say media representation has often been ignorant, discriminatory, and at times criminalising towards the mentally ill. In fact earlier this month, the actress Glenn Close apologized for her depiction of a mentally ill woman in Fatal Attraction.

Sensationalistic storylines and stigmatising stereotyping have only served to misinform and cloud the viewers image of someone who is ill and needing help – but that someone could be any one of us at any time of our lives.

The Time To Change media advisory service, which I am involved in, was set up to change negative perceptions and offer advice and guidance to promote more realism and sensitivity when covering mental health storylines. Advising the soap Emmerdale on a storyline featuring Zak Dingle, the popular loveable rogue, felt like living a double life for a year as the programme documented how his mental ill health spiraled downwards. Emmerdale provided me with a unique test: to positively influence a popular soap storyline. It afforded me the opportunity to use my own personal experience of depression, and lifetime working as a qualified mental nurse, to bring realism and authenticity for a change. I took on the role with a gusto I had not felt for many years.

I immersed myself in the role to the point of drowning. I knew that only by doing this could I truly empathise with Zak’s plight and engage the viewing public. I read countless scripts going over each one with a fine toothcomb burning the midnight oil. I spoke for hours on the telephone with Fiona, the researcher, and my mobile phone was constantly in use for texting and talking over the scenes. I so wanted this to be right.

I felt duty bound to make a difference having been given this opportunity. I advised that showing Zak’s vulnerability and fragile emotional state, rather then the often stigmatising “Mad axeman is dangerous” image, would encourage the viewer to also empathise more. This worked well and delivered the right message to the viewers.

I was made redundant halfway through this work and understandably my self-confidence and esteem was badly dented. In fact it became non-existent. Conversely my work with Emmerdale helped me regain this. I felt I could empathise more with the Zak character as my mood plummeted. I became Zak, or at least this was how I felt at the time. We walked the same troubled path for a while.

The advisory service will continue to influence and craft storylines around mental health. We will continue to provide personal advice and information to researchers, directors, journalists and the stars themselves to make mental health depictions credible. We will provide guidelines and key tips such as to try to allow the characters storylines time to develop. And that recovery can be a long process.

We will encourage the listening of peoples personal stories, and encourage careful thinking about how the other characters in the soap will react. The use of humour is not necessarily a bad thing and bringing in some humour and warmth will challenge peoples often misinformed stereotypes of mental health.

Mental illness doesn’t make people bad so by reinforcing this we can discourage programmes using a mental health storyline to try and explain bad or strange behaviour. For far too long criminalisation of the mentally ill has existed on TV and Radio and this misperception must change.

We have a long road to walk in our media advisory work to get this right. Or as near to accurate as we can. It is crucial that we walk this long and no doubt winding road together. Through collaboration and mutual respect we will make damaging stereotyping of mental illness a distant memory in the media. It is a win-win situation for all concerned.

* Read more thoughts from Lol on the Emmerdale storyline here

* Tips for storylines featuring mental health issues that create dramatic and interesting narratives without alienating audiences, resorting to stereotypes or using a mental illness to try and explain “bad behaviour”:
– to make a charactor plausible and accurate, speak to as many people who have mental health problems as possible. They are the best consultants available and most want to see accuracy on screen
– think about your camera shots. Certain mental health conditions can lead people to feel isolated or to experience altered reality. This can be reflected through close up shots, POV shots or hand held
give the storyline enough time to develop. It is common that symptoms of mental health problems will manifest over a period of time and build in intensity, rather than develop and explode in the space of one episode
think about how other characters react. Stigma and discrimination can be as bad as the mental health problem itself for many people. Can you show any empathy from others?
get expert advice from mental health charities and experts to ensure that the symptoms you are showing on screen are relevant and realistic
think of your dramatic climax carefully. Most people with mental health problems are not violent so it is unrealistic for a storyline to always end in violence or homicide

Based on information from the Time to Change media advisory service. Read more 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”.