The serene scenery that surrounds the Royal Welsh Showground in Builth Wells for this year’s conference, welcomes you to a day filled with hope and inspiration. With walking through the main doors to the arena where the stage is set, it is immediately clear to see what holds the promise for a successful day. DIY Futures – which is the lottery funded charity that has proven itself effective in and around the Powys area here in Wales – acts as host in celebration of world mental health week. We are here to explore the breadth of ideas surrounding mental distress, in order to generate discussion and debate away from the conventional mainstream.
As the set-up continues in preparations for the 9:45am start time, while people begin to arrive and sign in, everything is running smoothly. Refreshments are readily available while everyone waits, and the relaxed atmosphere gives those old and new – familiar and strange – a chance to socialise and interact with one another. The room steadily becomes busier and the sound of vibrant chatter fills the scene with anticipation. Seats at the various round tables are taken, just out in front of the speaker’s panel, and we’re almost underway.
Up first, our chair people run us through the necessary introductions, with support added to clearly identify what the aims are for the day, and then we are ready to meet our opening speaker to really kick things off.
We start with Marion Aslan, who is a qualified teacher, author and mental health activist with over 30 years experience working in the Healthcare sector. Her thread of work runs through a number of arenas including Mental Health, Learning Disabilities, Drug & Alcohol Services and Homeless projects. It has taken her to a variety of places in the world, such as Italy; Germany; Africa; Australia; America and Denmark, where she has spent time developing mental health programmes, recovery and person centred planning tool-kits, as well as establishing “The THRIVE Approach to Mental Wellness” with her co-author and long time colleague Mike Smith. Having a background of lived experience herself – with at one time being diagnosed with postnatal depression and puerperal psychosis – it is through her own personal pathways to recovery where she has found the inspiration to create this influential and eclectic body of work, that has taken her further forward.
The calibre of someone like Marion, is what helps to establish the foundation and overall mood for the day, so it can reach it’s full potential. The message she has to communicate is a very important one and is expertly delivered. She speaks in a way that directly addresses the issues faced, in and away from conventional systems of treatment, clearly showing why it is definitely necessary to have alternatives as an option, regardless of what stage we may be at. The way in which she speaks, gets to the root of what needs to be said, without holding back anything. There is a refusal to shy away from the major themes in this area – that have to be acknowledged – and this in turn strengthens the impact of what it is that is being put across. Her work with Elemental Wellbeing in particular demonstrates that there is a large demand for people to look away from the contemporary mainstream mental health services and find something that is actually tailored for those unique individuals in mind, where they will start to explore and find the specific therapeutic help needed for their own personal requirements. It is here where people are able to reject the notion of being diseased or ill, throw away the chains of stigmatization that Psychiatric diagnoses carry, in favour of being accepted for who they really are, with what they truly believe, without being judged or criticised for it. People are not expected to come together in a clinical environment to be analysed and inspected by specific medical professionals, but instead enjoy a more open and free place to support one another, in community settings such as cafés for example, where there are no extra costs to take into consideration or preconceptions about who they are as people.
It is not to say that Elemental is the only way to go, and that the mainstream mental health services have no use at all for people, but that it caters for a significant part of the population who will only really discover the true means to overcome mental distress, by looking to the point beyond recovery, where the use of the core elements in this approach are thoroughly tested and found to be essential for that to happen.
As the talk concluded, there was a short period of time afterwards for a Q&A session with the speaker, giving people a chance to raise any issues or offer any feedback in response to the talk. Something that is common at a conference of this nature, is that people have the opportunity to spend time with our speakers throughout the rest of the day to take things further where felt needed, which is certainly appreciated by all parties involved.
We move on to hear what’s next from the designated chair person, before the break for refreshments. In and following on from this, there is the opportunity for people to explore the ‘Drop in and Find Out More’ area of the conference on the other side of the building, where various groups and organizations from the surrounding area, have the chance to bring awareness and information to those who are interested in what they have to offer. I personally didn’t manage to find the time to explore this, even though it would have been appealing, perhaps due to the structure of the conference, which I’ll go into a bit more shortly.
During this time frame there were also ‘Workshops’ available for people to attend, with a total of 6 to choose from. The workshops were around the areas of: The potential of lived experience; the effects of trauma at different stages in our development; learning to live with hearing voices; projects that tie in to DIY futures; and the understanding of care plans in mental health services, specifically the Care Plan Approach (CPA). While there was an excellent standard to what was on offer, problems arose around the time allocated to explore the themes in these workshops. There was a general agreement and consensus that more time was needed to participate in them, in order to make them properly effective. In the one that I attended, we were only just starting to contribute something to the group as it was abruptly being brought to an end. It was not a workshop per se, but more a taster of what it would actually be like if it were to be fully realised. In my opinion, I feel that in future either the workshops would be better called something else, closer to what was experienced, or that the actual workshops take place on a separate schedule, happening multiple times throughout the day allowing for people to pick and choose easier, with the possibility of attending more than one.
Moving on, it was time for the next speaker of the day.
Pete Sanders had come to talk about his work involving the Soteria Network, and there work in establishing Soteria homes within the UK. He is one of the trustees for the network, and the project has come about from what was originally created in the 1970s, over in California, USA. Aside from work with Soteria, Pete is the director of PCCS Books who specialise in literature on counselling and psychotherapy and Pete himself is a retired person-centred psychotherapist and author. Originally pioneered by the notable and respectable Dr. Loren R. Mosher, Soteria House was set up to explore a new way in which to help individuals labelled with a diagnosis such as Schizophrenia, to find alternatives away from a predicted lifetime of Psychiatric treatment. Viewed and realised as ‘a home away from home’, and as an alternative offering a more holistic approach, it was a place to be integrated directly into the community, where people could feel safe and be supported away from the medical models available at the time. People were not forced to take neuroleptic(anti-psychotic) medications – nor helped by people who were medically trained in the usual conventional way – but rather by people who had a capacity to empathise with others and a true sense for how to care for the people in need, without prior professional experience or training necessary.
Pete was very thorough to give details on what Soteria was about, but as someone who has previously been aware of Soteria before now, I was more interested in what he had to say in other respects. I liked hearing about the difficulties faced in getting the project off the ground, to be aware of what it would take to make it a reality. I also liked the way in which he made it clear to say, that this is but one choice for an alternative, in respects to exploring new methods of treating people, who experience such things as psychosis. While my opinion is that the Soteria Project has it’s place – especially in parts of the country where the evolution of services hasn’t really progressed much at all or had little impact – there is still a need to evolve and transform the model itself to accommodate and suit the current paradigm of the age we live in. I certainly believe this is possible, providing the power is in the hands of the people for who it is looking to focus on and benefit – as well as finding the continuing funding required, independently of larger governing bodies.
Following the Q&A session, it was time for lunch and for people to digest the morning’s events.
Another area that presented a small problem, was that of the time allocated to the ‘Round Table Discussions’ which were to follow. Each table containing a set number of people were allocated a host, to discuss and explore people’s opinions and feedback on how the day was going. Again, the time allowed was not adequate enough for this, and while we had the option of scribbling down our musings on the table clothes provided, it would have been more welcome to get into a deep discussion about it with our fellow attendees. There was time set aside for another session similar to this before the day closed, but by then people were ready to leave.
On to the next speaker.
David Clarke was presenting “Wales Mental Health in Primary Care (WaMH in PC) Network and Exploring Realistic Outcomes.” David comes from the background of working in conventional arenas, such as with the Royal College of General Practitioners in Wales and healthcare bodies in statutory and voluntary sectors concerning the development of business planning methods, the delivery of good practices, and the assessment of performance. He has worked as a senior manger in the National Health Service (NHS) and in more recent years has become self-employed. He is also the chairman of two registered charities, both of which seek to relieve poverty and hardship in overseas Countries, with India in particular. Also, with his wife Jane, he is a carer to their grown-up daughter who herself lives with a mental illness.
The impression that I got from David, was that he is very sincere and enthusiastic about bringing in unconventional methods and ideas into the mental health services that are currently accessed in primary care, in order to help initiate change and transformation towards a more suitable medical model. A model which focuses primarily on person-centred approaches, with emphasis on healthy relationships in order for that to happen. I have to admit, that as a person who is primarily coming from the background of being a user of the mental health services that are provided in primary care, secondary care and beyond – it felt that this presentation was not aimed at someone like myself. I felt that it was looking to reach out to those professionals currently involved within the conventional services available, who are working with the current NHS models, in order to facilitate the changes desired to truly make a difference.
However, shouldn’t we already be at the point where patients have this healthy relationship with their chosen general practitioner, given how long primary care has been in place?
Why not look to employ different professionals to join the primary care team, to address the areas of mental and emotional well-being away from regular physical treatments?
I imagine most people are aware of why these questions are probably not worth asking. Where the money and the resources are concerned – and the constant demands on medical professionals to do more with less – is it really any wonder at all?
In my opinion, the problem with trying to integrate something unconventional in an already long established conventional system, is that most people are only trained, conditioned and attracted to the field based on outdated traditions and systems of that conventional nature. Any deviation away from that, threatens the foundations put down so long ago – which are religiously maintained from one generation to the next – through fear of having to start all over again from scratch. However, there will always be exceptional people in unexceptional places, and it’s to those people that I say “all the power to you!”
Following the Q&A and refreshments, it was time for the last speaker of the day.
Mike Smith presented “If not hospital, what can we do? The evidence and experience.” Dr. Mike Smith is a mental health professional with 30 years of international experience, and certainly has the credentials to prove it. He has been the Director of Nursing in North Birmingham from 1997 until- 2001, when he left to become an independent freelance trainer/consultant. He has been a champion of recovery since his early days as a psychiatric nurse. He has a special interest and breadth of knowledge in the areas of self harm and voice hearing. It’s within these areas that he continues to work with young people in the voluntary sector. He has an expertise in risk and crisis management and oversees training in these key areas in many parts of the UK. He has worked extensively with his colleague Marion Aslan, introducing fresh concepts that challenge the psychiatric services to re-evaluate recovery and what lies beyond…..and while I could continue to write about his long list of remarkable accomplishments (which stretch even further and wider) what I really want to do here is talk about the man which I saw for the first time this day.
Mike was the top highlight of the day for me and I’ll explain why that is.
It’s one thing to be someone of an academic background, mastering particular areas of expertise, with a large scope of knowledge and understanding to bring to the field of mental health. It’s another thing to receive awards and recognition for the contributions made, where there has been progressive advancements in the field due to that, all of which applies to Mike. Yet what I feel stands out the most – and why he is able to inspire and uplift people like myself very effectively – is that he also has the lived experience of mental distress on a very deep level, to fully compliment all of that academia.
There is a very fluid nature to his speaking, that blends together his different experiences seamlessly, so that he can convey what he wants, when he needs to. He comes across as someone who is comfortable to be himself as both a renowned teacher and as someone who is an everyday person we can relate to, while utilising the combined wisdom he has derived from these different walks of life. There is a strong confidence that is noticeable as he speaks, delivered what he knows to be certain. As well as this, there is something that has to be said about bringing a good sense of humour to the role.
Is it more interesting and enjoyable to learn when we can have fun and laugh during the exploration of the more serious themes and issues? or better that we remain serious as much as possible through out it, paying close attention to every detail on the Powerpoint presentation or being reminded of the importance of note taking and how crucial it is to read through every piece of literature that we’re given?
We have had enough monotony in our lives to weigh down our hearts, which is why it matters so much to have them lightened up any chance we get.
To touch on the contents of what was being addressed in Mike’s presentation, amongst the wealth of wisdom being shared, there was one particular point that has stayed with me. When we look to the evidence that explores the benefits of a number of these projects and systems created as alternatives to what is currently established in the conventional mental health services, it’s quite clear that these alternatives work very well indeed. They work at least as good as what’s available in the mainstream, and in a number of cases they actually work better. However, while there is funding made available from the appropriate governing bodies to be invested in these projects and systems, the money is taken away once they have proven themselves to be successful. Yet the thing is, these alternative projects and systems which have proved their high level of efficacy compared to the mainstream options, are actually financially cheaper to keep running. Knowing that, it would seem like a solid and feasible plan to make a transfer to the better option – the alternatives that were created – than to keep investing in something worse which appears in our conventional mental health services. As a result of that funding being taken away from the alternative projects, the resource is then lost to the people who benefited from it, and it’s value has been dissolved. It’s very rare that these alternative projects survive, regardless of the greater good that they generate….so what is the real agenda here?
Mike is also the Executive Director of crazydiamond which has been formed through his ongoing collaboration with Marion Aslan, and this gives further details of their ongoing work.
It was with this, that the conference drew to a close and we were left to figure out where to go from here.
As someone who acquired lived experience of mental distress from the moment of being born; as someone who has seen both his parents go through a lifetime of conventional mental health services, baring witness what that has entailed; and as someone who has in turn looked to those same mental health services for help and in search of answers – I needed to know whether it was still worth searching for them, instead of just giving up. I needed to know for sure that there was still hope for a better future, where we are seen for who we are and not for what we appear to be. Where someone cares enough to help us better ourselves, so that we may feel alive, instead of being resigned to merely existing and made to feel useless. It’s a day like this which makes it possible for me consider thoughts of true happiness, because I know that we have a chance now.
We have a choice – do we want to keep giving over our power to a system that keeps letting us down when we need it the most? or do we want to take that power back for ourselves and prove to those that would doubt us, that we are worth the time and that we are more powerful than they would have us believe?
What do we want our legacy to be?
The time to decide, starts now.