I have decided to write this open letter in support of funding/continuity of the Get Set to Go project within Tyneside and Northumberland Mind. I have a number of personal reasons why I felt it was important I write this and I wish to explain them within this letter for those people who have the power to make decisions on funding.
First and foremost, I am a Service User of Tyneside & Northumberland Mind’s Get Set to Go Sport project and attend a weekly activity session at Mind. I have a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar, which only got diagnosed in 2014 after many years struggling along with my mental health, within a demanding profession.
I was a manager within a large Secondary School (across 10 campuses and 3000 young people aged between 3-19 years). I was considered an extremely ‘highflier’ and earmarked for headship very early on, as well as being a Head of Department within my first year of teaching.
Towards the end of that first year, I picked up a second department, and have achieved ‘outstanding’ at Ofsted as well as sitting on county committees and doing advisory work along the way, I was a Pastoral Head in a school in a disadvantaged area, too. I have a CV full of impressive achievements, I then moved into Social Care and worked within Homelessness in a range of contexts, including funding.
A big factor in choosing to write this letter relates to the stigma of poor mental health and negative stereotypes. Along with completing early stage foster caring, completing an assessment for Supported Lodgings Placement and a great role, volunteering at the London 2012 Olympic Games, where I supported school children to present flags on the pitch at football matches; on the surface, present as enviable achievements but could also be overshadowed by my mental health if I let it.
Yet, alongside all of this, I was in turmoil, second guessing myself, not understanding that I was confident in situations, would be going through trauma dealing with situations wondering whether I said the right thing, I would suffer major anxiety at making a mistake, the list goes on. Alongside the mental health diagnosis received in 2014, I then went on to have bouts of physical ill health, where I had 6 surgeries in little more than 2 years and on-going issues as a result of some of these.
Personal circumstances aside from this, a symptom if you like of the associated difficulties, include losing my mortgaged property –where I had to hand the keys back as I simply couldn’t manage the mental health side of things anymore (a consequence of this is basically putting yourself in a situation where you are making yourself voluntarily homeless –a chance I had to take or I would simply not have been sitting here to type this). Also, due to mental health medication, I had my driving licence revoked-so my stress levels, as you can probably understand, were chronically dangerous and it was so hard to find a way out.
I am telling you this as it is all relevant because it earmarks why this group is so important to me and others who attend. Having explained a little background to my achievements, I would like to point out a pattern of perfectionism and my strive to be the absolute best in any situation; extreme perfectionism not just reflected in one area of my life, but many, whether it was to be excelling at the lessons I delivered, relationship with students and their parents, or achievement in sports from a younger age, where I am a proud owner of national medals for rowing.
Yet, the person I am, feels a massive disparity to the person I present, in so many areas. It is a trigger for making me ill in the past, but this group has contributed a lot to me changing those patterns of behaviour. In the grand scheme of things, aiming to get more of an awareness of myself in order to use the skills I have professionally again. This is very hard to explain to anyone as the presentation and feelings about this were so deeply embedded it felt like nothing would ever be able to change this to find a healthy balance.
At each session, Andrew, our Sports Co-ordinator at Tyneside Mind for the Sports Group, gives us an update about ‘what’s happening’ in the local area, he is honest about the need for him to research and write funding applications to sustain the project which could run out as soon as October 2017; what activities we are going to try to fit in before then, alongside information about a vast array of opportunities that he finds out about for us to consider and take part in.
This is another thing that prompted me to write and why this group needs to keep going because I am aware of funding processes having been involved in this for 18 months elsewhere. I am all to conscious of the fact applications for funding is a massive job, as there are various points within a year for some to ‘open’ applications, that the detail and recording processes and evidence recording to support these applications are massive.
Now, I could be wrong in this, but I am confident that I am not far from what will be happening ‘behind the scenes’, Andrew is likely to be spending a large amount of time trying to apply for money from various trusts for example and there may be smaller pockets of cash-rather than enough to establish the security of a larger amount to sustain the group over a much longer period of time. I’d love for Andrew/Tyneside & Northumberland Mind to be able to secure a larger sum of cash to allow him more time to spend building on all the brilliant things he already has got in place and has provided the opportunity for members to take part in.
As I ‘planned’ my letter and in this initial stage, I was heartened to see just how far the group has evolved since I started last year in summer 2016; how embedded it is in the lives for many and the potential for growth, building on what is already there. It will be a pleasure for me to write about some of these personal experiences below.
Using my ‘professional’ head, I am fully aware that this activity group ‘ticks’ boxes for a range of people, socially isolated, disabled, mental health, physical health, elderly, homelessness, younger people and I am confident that there will be demographs I am not aware of that also benefit.
When reading the report on the ‘Get Set to Go’ project, it is encouraging to read that “The results provide evidence that Get Set to Go is meeting its original aims of increasing the physical activity levels of people living with mental health problems – while the improvements to people's wellbeing is also further evidence for the associated health benefits that having an active lifestyle brings.” I could not agree more!
As I mentioned earlier when I said I had planned this letter, I aim to give a detailed reflection based on the great benefits of this group in sections. This will have a personal slant on it, but I know from conversation and general observations that others will have similar reasons for feeling this group is a ‘must’, albeit with different back stories and motivations to join for each participant.
Firstly, and perhaps most arguably, this should be a LONG TERM GROUP! Too often, in my experiences, mental health courses or groups are usually offered on a shorter time scale, whilst a shorter time scale is better than nothing, when the point is to learn about something, for example, ‘Wellbeing’ in cases where people’s lives have been impacted significantly by their mental health, longer term offers so many positives and opportunity to change behaviour, which can’t happen overnight, it is invaluable for me.
It allows you to develop positive relationships with staff and service users over a length of time, in a safe environment where staff know you and what your own particular barriers are, as well as service users getting to know you and support each other through their own barriers. This is essential when trying to embed behaviour change as a result of mental health. You can become a ‘user on a conveyor belt’ when in short term groups and as confidence can be a factor in many cases, making real shifts in mental wellbeing, can only develop over time, for example, what has happened with this sports group.
Longer term service delivery can allow you to develop the opportunity to make new friends, whereas in shorter term groups, you might find that you come to the end of six weeks or so and feel as if you are only beginning to scratch the surface getting to know people and staff, and then it ends. In my own personal experience, I have been comforted that the Mind Sports Group was a ‘constant’.
When I have been held up by surgeries, I did not feel the mental health pressure of thinking my physical health is going to impact on me working on my mental health. This is an issues I simply do not have to think about – plus I had the added encouragement of having fellow service users investing time in me and my wellbeing, in other words, a real emotional boost. It is of paramount importance this continues as there are so few groups around to offer this level of understanding and support.
Remaining long term gives service users something constant to embed in their own particular needs. As any therapist would say, the real work comes long after the sessions engaging with the therapist when you are carrying on your life, building your life, working on what therapists and yourself identified in sessions. A long term group provides a ‘base’ with support to continue on this path.
In my particular case, I have identified perfectionism as being a real barrier in my life until recent years, I could not have engaged in understanding why this did not matter. I constantly test my own boundaries in Sports Group (i.e. a Safe Place) to recognise that not being perfect doesn’t matter. This environment is perfect for this, as I have made it clear to Service Users and Andrew, this was a major thing for me.
It was my ‘normal’ to be ill and paralysed with guilt and fear if I made a mistake in so many contexts, mind racing over perceived consequences, this may be a flawed way of thinking, but it has been costly in my life to date. I am so proud to tell this story now, after long term attendance at group, I am happy to join in games and activities and even deliberately make mistakes –whether we are playing Boccia, where I will go for ‘all or nothing’ shots-it might cost us the game, but I’m fine with it, I go home reflecting and turning over these thoughts time and time again saying ‘wow, they weren’t bothered I made that mistake’ instead of the negative opposite of this.
I am literally smiling as I type this because I know the extent of the barrier this was to me. There is also the time we went to the climbing wall at Northumbria University, how I loved it! I remember getting ¾ of the way up and wasn’t happy with my grip, so I decided to come down.
I was ‘self-talking’ all the way up this and the encouragement from other service users and Andrew summed up why this group was and is needed- I hadn’t pushed myself to make sure I did it, I simply said, what does it matter if you don’t? Invaluable, simply invaluable and a round of applause for trying-there is that unspoken understanding in a group such as this.
I am very aware that structured physical activity programmes can play a key role in someone’s recovery from mental health, but mental ill health can provide a barrier to accessing this help in the first place, you need a safe environment where you feel you can be told the same message time and time again, and not reprimanded or mocked for this and the Mind Sports Group provides this environment.
People can have very low self-confidence, fear of crowded spaces, struggle with new faces, entering a competitive environment straight away, they might have bad memories of sport within school years ago and they need help to move on from those memories. Mind Sports and activities once again, offer that environment to face these personal issues head on, with people who have that unspoken understanding and professionalism in mental health support.
Personally, I know my own personal battle is being won, slowly and it is with having an established group there to help ‘expose’ me to this, in my own way. It means sport and exercise remain at the forefront of my mind and I can tackle my own self-criticism week by week, for not being ‘as good as I once was’ and know people understand it is a jigsaw puzzle of interventions that will shift this for me personally, as it will be a jigsaw puzzle of interventions for others too.
I am really concerned that if Mind cannot secure the funding for this group to continue, I personally would not know where to turn for similar support. This is a big worry, and I am trying to learn to stay in the moment and not concern myself with the future, another challenge for my mental health. I do not want to start having to concern myself with finding another outlet – to which, I believe my resourcefulness shows that the area offers nothing else like this, I am really concerned.
I know from personal experience that I have been told that a service offered by Gateshead Council, which I have accessed a number of times, the Live well Service has recently been decommissioned with the loss of valuable jobs for staff who work in the community. This service offered individual support for a length of time and then linked to this, there would be other activities you could access, like bike rides.
This local area really needs this to be sustained but with cuts to public sector services, I fear this will continue to get worse. Personally I had found a Yoga class run by a lady educating within Gateshead Council’s learning programme and attended this for two terms, and genuinely loved it but then this lady chose to go into private teaching and all of a sudden my yoga was gone and nothing has been available to replace it. Gateshead Council yoga was free to me because of my benefits situation, and private yoga classes are rather expensive individually with little or no income.
I see other benefits of having this group at Mind too; it provides signposting to other activities both ‘in house’ and within the community. These activities might be one off events, plans for the future, allowing people who would have no way to access information like this to be informed and consequently have choices to make about what is right for them.
Andrew is consistent in making this a feature of the current sports group and if this group disbanded, then we would not have an on-going link to Mind and consequently this useful information. Over time, people can lose support, keeping depression at bay and perhaps, unfortunately back to the drawing board/GPs with nowhere to turn to. This may be a ‘worst case scenario’ but GPs in my experience as well as Community Mental Health Teams always try to refer to sports and exercise as part of the recovery programme, if there is nothing suitable available, the effects and impact of this will become apparent and have greater cost to mental health and physical services.
There have been some fantastic opportunities developed by a very dedicated group lead, he understands the need for ‘no pressure’ and works tirelessly to give us a variation of opportunities for us to try out, for example the Climbing wall, the air rifle target shooting, which unfortunately I was in post-surgery clinics during the group’s slot for a period of time and various styles yoga.
We are given choice and respected as individuals and our personal needs as well as the group have been addressed, clearly it has gone from strength to strength and is a model of best practice in service delivery and customer satisfaction. I’m thinking in particular about the Boccia set that was bought for us and others to play. It is universally loved within the group; we even started joking about how there should be a league for us to participate in and Andrew has personally completed a Boccia Gold Leaders Award to help us get the most from the game, true dedication!
Andrew went away and researched our request for a league but unfortunately there was not. I cannot remember the exact response but I feel it was something to do with the need for x amount of people with registered specific physical disabilities may have been the barrier and no other teams to play. The point of this being, allowing a group of established people to get to know each other in a LONG TERM mental health setting, he gave this thought real consideration and we were willing to put ourselves in the ‘lion’s den’ of competitive sport.
I view this as remarkable progress that can only be gained from LONG TERM engagement. Conversations then evolved about taking ‘our’ Boccia team to another local group and playing our own competitive matches there, where it would be two groups of like-minded people who would not get the chance to mix, aside from this, the opportunity to provide a boost to all involved.
We have even had the opportunity to complete a sports qualification over recent weeks, this was fantastic! We tried new sports again which I loved. We played dodgeball which took me back 30 years or so when I used to play this a lot at Girl Guides, so in a way that triggered happy memories of sport for me, hoping to build my confidence to continue trying and getting involved.
The Sports Award gave us all confidence and made people think, in ways perhaps they had forgotten they could or did, but I am perhaps in a unique position here as I have got Sports Teaching Qualifications and a teaching background in schools. I could not help but pick up in the group that people were delighted at what they had achieved, but perhaps more so, confidence building that they knew stuff they didn’t think they did. I loved seeing this.
I was absent for one week whilst on holiday and a friend from the group sent me a message to tell me what I had missed. It had been flagged up with a possibility of doing another course soon at a higher level. Many are enthusiastic about this, which I understand, but I sat at home and mulled over this, so sent Andrew an email with my initial thoughts.
When I was next in group, I asked Andrew if he minded me sharing my thoughts (I can wobble, great advocate for others, totally the opposite for me) so firstly, I recognise the safe environment to do this, developed my own confidence and I was given the chance to express to the whole group my own reservations, which were ‘just being’ within the group, with no measured focus, but recognise this comes from myself with a lot of qualifications too and difficulties I am working on which are different to other people.
After sharing my views for me, not others, I am so delighted with myself and pleased I am part of an environment that is helping me move leaps and bounds in this new way of thinking! Andrew said to me kindly, something along the lines of ‘You are certainly opinionated and express your point of view very clearly’. I was delighted by this response because this is a big shift in recent time for me and I had little anxiety around doing so.
I also know that Andrew really listened to the points I put across because he said he was looking at the opportunity not to lose the ‘freedom of engagement’ and continue with the ‘non-measured’ focus of this group and time constraints placed upon his capacity to support us.
I cannot advocate enough how vital it is this group continues and I would welcome the opportunity to speak to any senior managers, trusts, funders or Sport England representatives about why it is important to help us continue the Get Set to Go model and recognise the dedication and respect that Andrew and his team of volunteers have shown us over the past few years.
I have had all of these thoughts consolidated that personally working within mental health environment is now likely for me, based on being part of this project.
Long may Get Set to Go continue at Tyneside & Northumberland Mind!