Tackling the stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health is one of the main objectives of today’s (Friday 10th October) World Mental Health Day. Andrew Mickel visits a project in Derbyshire that is trying to do this on a local level by bringing together adults with a mental health problem and young people in the community.
A project in the Derbyshire countryside run by mental health charity Rethink is bringing together adults with mental health issues and young people with behavioural difficulties on a daily schedule of outdoor activities.
Shaun Hallam, the area services manager for Rethink who has developed Green Schools over the last year, says that both groups can benefit from each other. Excluded from school at 16, Hallam, who was subsequently diagnosed as bi-polar, has drawn on his personal experience to develop the project.
“I went through some very traumatic events as an adolescent, being excluded from school, and then diagnosed with mental illness,” says Hallam. “But rather than being left with trauma from those events, I rebuilt my life based on positive interventions from adults.”
Hallam hopes that the mix of young and old will have the same effect on the project. “The aim with Green Schools is that children that attend here will come away with positive impressions of people with mental illness. And that should have a knock-on effect when they go back into the community, because they could well be the ones causing difficulties for adults with mental health problems.”
Any 11 to 14 year olds who have been referred to the county’s behavioural support services can join, while all adults with mental health issues are eligible. So far, over 100 people have used the service, and several children have subsequently been able to return to mainstream education.
The days are structured with formal groups in the morning such as woodland management, sculpture and horticulture, followed by afternoon physical activity including football, fishing and mountain biking. Hallam says the physical exertion means that the children immediately start behaving better, because they are too exhausted to do otherwise and have put their minds to something.
Paul Henderson works on the project and says the outdoor work is great for the adults too. “It gets them out and stops them being socially isolated. It gets them to talk to each other and form friendships, which is something they really need to do. They’re doing something meaningful, so it really gets the endorphins going and gives them a natural high. You can see them recovering their lives again.”
Tyran Harris was referred to the project six months ago by the local early intervention unit, as he was feeling isolated by his schizophrenia. “I used to sit at home on my own not interacting with people. I just sat in my bedroom, playing on my computer or listening to music,” he says.
“I just wanted to better myself really, meet more people and enjoy life. Now I’ve made quite a few friends. One guy I’ve started going to the pub with, which I never used to do before.”
He has now preparing to take a horticulture course, which he developed an interest in while on the programme. He also boxes on Mondays with the young people, who he says are well behaved during the classes.
Indeed, there have so far been no reportable problems between the adults and children. Says Henderson: “The referrals that come through from the schools are usually very damning. They talk about exclusions and perhaps behaviour in the community that the police have had to address. But the child that comes in is very different than what is in the referral.
“I think that trusting the child and not treating the child didactically like a teacher would do helps address their behaviour one-to-one.”
As for the future, despite the fact that Green Schools is only one year into a three-year round of funding from the Big Lottery Fund, Hallam is already in talks with local services to secure cash beyond 2010. It has also received excellent feedback from the local education authority, which is now represented on the project’s regular steering group.
Says Hallam: “The key thing is not to be judgemental against the client groups that we’re working with and not become too focused on risk. So now, although we’ve only been running for six months, we’re already an integrated part of the local education system.”