Boxing-based fitness classes are helping service users gain confidence at one of several activity schemes run by Mind in Croydon. Natasha Salari reports
As a world boxing champion Duke McKenzie thought he had overcome his fair share of challenges – until he was approached by Mind in Croydon three years ago. The south London branch of the mental health charity wanted him to train groups of service users with problems ranging from depression to schizophrenia by running non-contact Boxercise fitness classes.
“I thought it would be a challenge, and it still is, but it’s also the most rewarding job I have ever had,” McKenzie says. “I’ve had plenty of highs in my career but this is a different kind of buzz.”
As well as Boxercise classes, the charity runs projects including sailing trips, a parenting advocacy service and a documentary film group where service users have seen their work broadcast at a local cinema.
John Canning, director of client services, says: “I don’t think you will find an organisation offering such a diverse range of projects and such a wide range of experiences and opportunities for clients.
“We encourage staff and clients to come forward with new ideas. We are not a ‘but’ organisation. If it’s a great idea we run with it,” he says.
McKenzie’s Duke Box Gym in Croydon now even employs three service users who have trained as fitness instructors after taking part in a 10-week Boxercise project. Many service users have lost weight through the fitness classes while all have gained confidence. Some have even felt that boxing has completely turned their lives around.
“One of the women from the last group I ran told me that boxing had saved her life. She said that no psychiatrist could give her what she had gained from the boxing project,” adds McKenzie.
The charity’s sailing group has seen similar effects. Jenny Scorer, 48, has suffered with yearly episodes of bipolar disorder since her teens, but she has not fallen ill since becoming involved in the sailing group four years ago.
The project is in its sixth year and gives service users the chance to take part in three annual sailing trips, each lasting between two and five days. Volunteers from charity the Rona Sailing Project help to staff the yacht that sails in the Solent with up to nine Mind service users at a time.
“Sailing has definitely helped me to keep well because I don’t have the time to get ill. As soon as I come back from one trip I start looking forward to the next one and that helps to keep me well too. The trips make me more confident because you meet new people and you have to get involved in the day-to-day running of the boat,” says Scorer.
Service users, Mind staff and volunteers have to help out with everything on board from steering the yacht and hoisting sails to cleaning toilets and peeling potatoes. Welfare benefits adviser and project founder, Adrian Clark, says the trips present unique challenges to service users.
“Most of our clients live independently in their own flats but on the boat their beds may be part of the lounge area,” he says. “There is a lack of privacy and they can’t get away. They are trusting their lives to a bunch of strangers they have never met before. For a lot of clients just leaving Croydon is a challenge and on the trips there is a physical risk and a risk of failure.
“Having interests and hobbies like sailing gives clients a real boost. They gain a skill and that gives them confidence because they may feel totally deskilled,” he says.
The charity’s Parenting Advocacy Service was also set up with the aim of giving service users more confidence. Staff report that parents with mental health needs were worried their children would be taken into care.
Advocates work with parents giving them the reassurance and help they need to access mental health and other services. They can also liaise with health and social care professionals and provide support during child protection proceedings.
Welfare, benefits and advocacy services manager Rory O’Kelly, says: “By attending child protection meetings we give parents the confidence to challenge assumptions and we encourage them to be co-operative where appropriate. We don’t know how many parents would have lost their children if we hadn’t been involved but probably quite a few.”
Projects run by Mind in Croydon are changing and saving lives by pushing the boundaries of the traditional model of services offered to mental health service users.
Says chief executive Richard Pacitti, “Mental health services are very good at telling people what they shouldn’t be doing because it will make them too stressed or anxious. If our clients can succeed at one thing they can succeed in so many other areas of their lives.”