How Wirral Wellbeing Campus is battling mental illness with social education
“I don’t know you,” Nick Broadhead of Wirral Wellbeing Campus says, “but I’m fairly certain you’ll have learnt Pythagoras’ Theorem in school, but you won’t have been taught how to manage stress.”
“Part of the problem is I very much doubt that you’ve been contacted since you left your educational establishment to see whether they felt they’d prepared you for life. Your secondary school will have prepared you for university and would have been paid for that.”
That strikes a real chord with us. We were only discussing this the other week with friends; how we were taught the ins and outs of photosynthesis but nothing about tax and banking systems, and very little on approaches to parenthood.
Nick’s an Occupational Therapist specialising in mental health issues, and, with his colleague, Kate Platt, Campus Co-ordinator, they run the site at Bentinck Street, Birkenhead. The pair have dedicated themselves to helping people suffering from various forms of mental illness, and are educating them on the causes and providing management techniques.
We’re deep in conversation with Nick on the education issue and the schools comment has lit a fire. Surely the education system should be doing more at an earlier age? “Absolutely,” Nick says. “The 7-11 breathing technique for instance; if you want to relax you breathe in for less time than you breathe out.
“They could teach that at schools, it takes a minute to learn and it’s a useful technique for helping to relax and sleep. Power posing and body language; standing in a power pose for two minutes can help significantly neurologically. It’s not hard to explain or understand but nobody’s teaching it.”
Learning to fly
The Wellbeing Campus has been going for a year and has a weekly programme of differing events to help people socialise. These are complemented by education sessions to improve mental wellbeing and develop personal support strategies for the long-term, instead of relying on what can be viewed as short-term solutions offered by medication.
“The Skills Funding Agency which is a department for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills decided to put some money into seeing the effects of an alternative approach to mental health other than more medicine-based solutions,” Nick tells us.
“They put some money into 80 different pilot schemes across the country to see the effects of an educational approach to support people with common mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, post-natal depression, post-traumatic stress, phobias, OCD and more. They wanted to see if it would be as effective as going to a GP and being put on medication.”
We can see its effectiveness first-hand. We’re sat in the sun in a well-tended garden full of fruit and veg, created from participants of the Campus’ gardening lessons and course. Upstairs an art class is in full swing led by tutor Mark where a lady painting a green man says “I come here for the art. It’s brilliant, it’s the best form of therapy.”
A man who has had problems with anxiety adds “I was a cabbage. Bad. A recluse. I’ve made new friends and the mindfulness techniques here are great; it makes sense to me what they’re teaching.”
Amazingly the Wellbeing Campus and the work it’s doing may not have existed at all if different boxes were ticked on the official forms. “Lifelong Learning, the council’s education arm, and AIW Health joined up together as a partnership and submitted a bid for us to become one of those pilots, and here we are. We set up last August,” says Nick.
“It’s very interesting that funding was from the Skills Funding Agency. If it was health that had funded us, they may have insisted that people enter the health system. Because we’re education-focused and funded [the issues we deal with are] looked at from a slightly different angle; I don’t think we’d exist if we had to go down the health route.”
We could talk to Nick all day about mental health. There are stories daily in the media offering totally differing and new viewpoints and statistics. Depression can lead to a 42 per cent pay gap, apparently, while over a third of female students in the UK are suffering from mental health issues.
Most worryingly, according to statistics from the Mental Health Foundation, nearly six per cent of adults over 16 have attempted suicide because of a link with mental illness. Despite the sheer size of the mental health spectrum, though, and the diversity of people’s experiences the NHS is sadly well behind when it comes to mental health funding.
We know that from personal experience. Most consultations feel, at best, like shots in the dark. However down you are at any given time, there’s little more depressing than hearing that you may have to wait upward of two years for an NHS mental assessment; that the help may be there but it’s so far from your reach. For children that wait may be as high as three years.
So the Campus’ approach to education is a very intriguing one. Nick’s adamant education is essential for mental wellbeing: “I’m an occupational therapist with a big background in mental health. I’ve always hated the medicalisation of mental illness.
“What we do is provide some basic education around what mental health and mental wellbeing is, education around how to manage stress and anxiety, how to develop your self-esteem and self-confidence, and – importantly – how to have some self-compassion because people tend to beat themselves up if they feel they aren’t performing well.
“We also help people set goals for themselves and show how they can motivate themselves. We provide education around how you can keep yourself well. Once people have learned something then they can have a look at what might be going wrong and have the skills available to put things right.”
The Campus’ support network is also essential to the educational and social work they’re providing. Nick uses Liverpool’s famous Dr. Duncan as an analogy, pointing out how he had to pester the council to improve living conditions in the fight against cholera.
“I think it’s the same analogy now; CBT might help people get better, but if you’re sending them back to isolation and not helping their overall living conditions then what’s the point? There needs to be more done in a lifestyle sense medically in battling mental health. We offer that and a support system in helping people keep well in the long-term.
“Two things that happen in common with people suffering from a mental illness are that they’ll drop out of their social network and become socially isolated. When people are socially isolated they start to develop problems because it becomes harder for them to check and validate their thoughts.
“The other big issue with mental health is that you stop doing things that are fun. They become tasks. Your life becomes ‘I’ve got to get this done and do the ironing and pick up the kids’ and you stop enjoying life.”
The power of perception
The Wellbeing Campus’ range of social activities is helping to reintroduce fun and activity back into sufferers’ lives as well as education. Kate couldn’t be more proud of the work that the team’s doing in Birkenhead.
“I love what we do, it feels great. We’ve had learners come who couldn’t leave their houses, and they’ve totally transformed themselves.
“We’ve helped people return to work and who have started volunteering. They wouldn’t have entertained a job application previously because of the depth of their anxiety but are now confident and actively seeking work. It’s lovely to see the differences in people. That people are meeting up socially outside of here is a huge achievement.
“We do what people tell us they want to do. Some have mentioned they’d like to write so we’re trying that in a few weeks’ time. Some people laugh and tell us they haven’t done that in a while. We’re a lovely environment and a non-judgemental safe place.”
“When they come here they come out of themselves, build confidence and you can see the change in people,” Nick adds. “It’s so exciting on a personal level to see people say ‘I get it, I understand that now’. It’s a reasonable level of education we’re giving people even though it’s quite condensed, but there are opportunities to read further, learn more and ask questions.
“This week we’ve started a ‘Food for Mood’ cookery course which lasts for six weeks. We’ve got art going on all the time and yoga and gardening. For the last few weeks we’ve also had drumming sessions and pallet furniture building. We do a whole range of activities that are fun.
“The education sessions aren’t overwhelming and have approximately five people in them. They aren’t counselling sessions, but teaching in a structured, informal way. Our tutors can pass on theory-based lessons about, for example, the causes of stress and depression, but what is really powerful is hearing other people describe how they have coped.
“Often people feel totally isolated and that they are the only ones with this condition, so to hear from someone else that they are feeling the same and finding a positive way forward is incredibly uplifting and empowering.”
Nick and Kate, as well as helping people identify their own personal causes and effects of mental illness, also have to work hard to attract funding to the project. It’s entering a crucial stage; the Campus is still effectively in ‘project’ territory, and others across the UK are being culled. A declaration of the government’s attitude toward mental health funding, perhaps…
“One in four people experience a common mental health problem. Quite often that manifests itself in massive anxiety. We deal with people who have got to a stage where they haven’t left the house in six or seven years and have become socially isolated,” says Nick.
“The original pilots were for a year. The SFA has now called us a research project but numbers have fallen UK-wide; I think there are only about 60 of us now.
“We’re unique from the others in that we offer education and link it in with wellbeing stuff, and we have our own premises. While other research projects are changing, I’m hopeful we’ll be given the go-ahead to carry on doing our own thing.
“We’re also looking for additional funding to help sustain us. It seems to me that this is well worth funding in our present format. People are coming from Inclusion Matters who offer CBT and more; they sometimes have to face eight month waiting lists. We’re here for people who simply can’t wait that long.”
It would be fantastic for such a well-meaning wellbeing project to attract more support and funding so Nick, Kate and their tutors can carry on improving and educating the local community about mental health to anybody and everybody who needs it.
Nick hopes so, too. “We’ve really risen to the challenge. We’re open Monday-Thursday but would love to use the premises 24-7. We’re also introducing a Skype project and have started setting up conversations with people; the idea being that if you’re awake and can’t sleep there’ll be someone awake somewhere else in the world who can talk to them and help.
“We do some sessions outside here, too. We don’t have a crèche for instance, so for mums experiencing post-natal depression we can support them from our posts in Bebington and Leasowe. We get out there and pass on our experience and knowledge of mental health education.
“Accessing the Campus is really easy, just ring or text 07599 872911 and someone will contact you to tell you what’s on and how to join in and, because we are fully funded, it is free for all learners.”
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