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Navigating Mental Health at University

To navigate means to travel along a desired path, one which has been planned and prepared for, one which you have intended to travel along; and if you deviate from that path then you prepare the necessary tools to get back on the right track. In terms of our Mental Health something which I consider to be an extremely delicate aspect of human beings that must be nurtured and cared for just like any other part of our body and yet many of us do not place value in it or ignore it to the point of crisis.

I would like to share some very raw and personal stories throughout this blog to inform you on the value of managing a mental health crisis whether it be for yourself or someone you know, the following accounts will reflect upon the importance of caring for our mental health and what happens when we don’t, I hope that this information may prove to be invaluable one day.

From a very young age I was met with difficulties, both parents were heavy drug users and after my arrival on this planet my father left and I wouldn’t meet him again until I was around 10 years old, My mother without a job and 3 children continued to abuse drugs and so me and my brothers lived with my grandparents. Throughout my childhood I experienced panic attacks and zero confidence, I felt unloved and unworthy and so as we all know our childhoods greatly affect our adulthood. At 19 years old I decided I would escape from my reality and travel Australia leaving my dead-end relationship and my wonderful friends and my extremely complicated family. Upon my arrival in Oz land I truly felt free for the first time in my life and I had so much ahead of me. So young, hopeful and slightly naive I travelled to central Australia in my 3rd week where I embarked on a tour with 8 other people to travel further south, this tour however was pivotal in the downward spiral of my Mental Health. It would be on the 3rd day of the tour that all the backpackers enjoyed some beers together whilst watching a truly magical sunset over Uluru and it was later that night that I would be locked in a bathroom with the tour guide leader having been drugged and then raped. Rough I know. For many years I abused my body and my mind and grew an overwhelming addiction to not getting better via drugs and alcohol and bad people. And If I am completely honest it’s not until this new year (2020) that I finally feel free from the clutches of that horrific event. Getting better takes time, and it’s been 5 years since I went to Australia, but the important point I’m trying to make here is that for 5 years I’ve mostly ignored my problems and so they have festered. Some years ago I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy/Talk Therapy via the NHS and it really did help me for a small amount of time, but unfortunately the NHS is under a lot of pressure and so I only had these appointments for around 3 months most of it was self-help homework to help me understand my emotions better, and what I call my ‘Brain Doctor’ really cared and made me realise my childhood and being raped was not my fault, and if you can take anything away from this blog post then remember that you are not at fault, you are human, and if you need help then that’s okay.

So fast forward a few years, and I’ve plucked up the courage to come to University, I have the support of my partner who I live with, in our lovely apartment in the town, my wild childhood friends, and a very dysfunctional family, however I now have the added support of those at the University. However let me just say University life is definitely not easy, I’ve been kicked out of my accommodation whilst having to complete a 72hour TCA 3000 word essay, working out of a room with none of my belongings around me trying to revise for exams during exam season whilst extremely ill and massively depressed trying to figure out where I would be living, I’ve had to rush from lectures to get to the hospital to take care of and feed my extremely ill Granda, and just last November I started taking Anti-Depressant medication for the first time and a week later found out I was pregnant, whilst supporting my suicidal friend and repairing my relationship with my mum. Now I’m not going to say that if I can get through that then you can get through what you’re going through because the weight of our issues can be heavier to one person than the other, but the one thing I did differently throughout all of this compared to how I handled childhood problems and the rape, I actually spoke to people, I spoke to my partner, my friends, my family and for the first time I fully opened up to people at the University, it started with a tutor so I could request an extension (oh because of course during all of this I had like 50 essays to complete), then my personal tutor so my non-attendance at lectures could be excused, it was that conversation that led to me writing this blog post! And from that it continued, I then spoke to Assist and the Student Support Team to figure out whether having a baby whilst studying was even a viable option, and it was but I knew in myself I did not have the strength to embark on that particular journey and my choice was supported not just by my friends, family and partner but also by the University via supportive emails from tutors, and being allowed mitigating circumstances on assignments I just couldn’t complete right now. Support comes in many different forms but it’s so important that you open up otherwise how can anyone support you, you don’t even have to say what’s wrong you just need to let someone know something is wrong and when you’re ready and comfortable you can open up and get the help that you might need.

So at Northampton University there is a great deal of support available to us students all it takes is an email or popping by a drop in session, I understand that in itself can be a difficulty trust me I’ve made many appointments and not turned up and if you feel that way also then what I’d recommend is maybe asking a friend to go with you or letting your personal tutor know so they could offer some advice on how to deal with that because there really are people who want to help you become the best you that you can be.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising every time that we fall – Confucius

  • Assist – Assist can give you advice and guidance for managing your disability whilst studying, for me they helped with a DSA application regarding my Anti-Depressant medication, the DSA application will give me the opportunity to have 6 appointments with the counselling team who can further help me work through my issues by providing me with a safe and comfortable space to talk. https://www.northampton.ac.uk/student-life/support/about-assist/ ASSIST@northampton.ac.uk

If you have been affected by any of the issues I have discussed during this blog post and your struggling to manage or cope with these issues then you can also use any of the following services;

If you have been affected by sexual assault;.

https://www.northamptonshirerapecrisis.co.uk/ (Northampton Local Centre).

https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/other-services/Rape-and-sexual-assault-referral-centres/LocationSearch/364 (Find sexual assault referral centre in your home town/local area).

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/help-after-rape-and-sexual-assault/

https://www.nhft.nhs.uk/serenity

Other helpful support (local and national)

https://www.mind.org.uk/

http://thelowdown.info/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/

Not good but, maybe not that bad…

smiley face

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/who-really-invented-the-smiley-face-2058483/

Having read a colleague’s reflection on the past year, I started to think about my own experiences of the year and what meaning it had for me.

As a criminologist I am critical of what I read, see and experience, consequently I have a fairly cynical view of the world and I have to say, the world rarely disappoints.  But amongst all the chaos, violence and political hubris, there must surely be chinks of light, otherwise what is the point.  A challenge then, to find the positive rather than view the negative, as hard as that may seem.

My year was difficult on both a professional and personal front and it tested my resilience and patience to the full.  I have suffered poor health resulting in spells in hospital and long periods away from work.  Difficult to engineer any positive spin on that but I’m sure I can give it a go.

We all have read about and no doubt many of us have experienced the crippling effect of an often reported, failing National Health Service (NHS).  It would be easy to state the problems and apportion blame, but in doing so we miss some nuggets of positivity (is that a real word?). I have nothing but praise for the staff working under extreme pressure within the health system.  When I was suddenly taken ill at home the paramedics that attended were brilliant, one a student from our home university.  When I arrived at the hospital, despite a manic casualty unit, I was well cared for by another student from the university.  I single these students out because there is a sense of pride in knowing that I am part of an institution that helps teach and coach health staff that care so well for others.  Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention that all of the other staff were kind and caring.  Later when I was admitted to hospital after a number of visits, I found my care to be exemplary.  I know this is not everyone’s experience and when we read the news or watch it on television it is all about failure.  My exemplary care and that of many around me isn’t particularly newsworthy.  Whilst in hospital I was visited by volunteers who were distributing books, kind people that give up their time to help others.  When my wife visited, she came in with a cup of coffee purchased from a café within the hospital run by volunteers.  More people giving up their time.  I know of and feel privileged to have taught and still teach students that volunteer in all sorts of organisations around the country.  The cynical side of me says that we shouldn’t have to have volunteers doing this but that is not really the point is it? The point is that there are kind and caring people around that do it to make life a little easier for others.

A prolonged absence from work caused some chaos in teaching, mitigated by colleagues that stepped in.  Busy colleagues, overloaded colleagues, who had additional burdens placed upon them due to my absence.  Even now on returning to work colleagues are having to take up the slack to cover for my current inability to work at full capacity.  But despite these burdens, I have experienced nothing but support and kindness not just resultant of my illness but throughout what has been a difficult year.  Difficult to be cynical except that to say some of the difficulties faced should never have arisen but the point is that there were kind and caring people around to provide much needed help and support.

If I turn my thoughts to wider issues, the dreadful events at Fishmonger’s Hall served to remind us of the violent world we live in but that very event also serves to remind us of the kind, caring and brave nature of many.  The victims Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were both engaged in a project that was aimed at making society a better place.  Those that tackled the terrorist showed the sort of selfless bravery that epitomises the essence of human nature.

If we think about it and it probably doesn’t take too much thinking, we can find countless examples of good things being done by kind and caring people.  We can be cynical and suggest that the situations should never have arisen in the first place that necessitated that kindness or those actions, but the incidents and situations are there and are played out in society every day, C’est la vie’.  Maybe, just occasionally, rather than thinking about doom and gloom, we should celebrate the capacity of people to simply be human.

Ho ho homeless: Boris and reasons to be cheerful.

rough sleeper

“Homeless Rough Sleeper” by Deadly Sirius is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

A week has passed since the election and our political parties have had time to reflect on their victory or demise.  With such a huge majority in parliament, we can be certain, whether we agree with it or not, that Brexit will be done in one form or another.  The prime minister at the first meeting of his cabinet, and as if on cue ready for my blog, in front of the cameras repeated the pre-election promise of 40 extra hospitals and 50,000 extra nurses.

Putting aside my cynicism and concern about how we, as a country, are going to grow enough money trees without our foreign agricultural workers after Brexit, I welcome this much needed investment.  I should add here that in the true sense of fairness, pre-election, other parties were likewise offering wonderful trips to fairyland, with riches beyond our wildest dreams.  Trying to out trump each other, they managed to even out trump Trump in their hyperbole.

However, rather appropriately as it turns out, whilst sitting in the waiting room at a general hospital on election day, I read a couple of disturbing articles in the i newspaper.  Pointing to the fact that makeshift shelters are becoming increasingly common in British cities one article quoted statistics from Homeless Link showing that rough sleeping had increased by 165% since 2010 (Spratt, 2019).  Alongside, another article stated that A&E admissions of homeless patients had tripled in the last eight years with 36,000 homeless people attending in the last year (Crew 2019).  Whilst I am always cautious regarding statistics, the juxtaposition makes for some interesting observations.

The first being that the promised investment in the NHS is simply a sticking plaster that attempts to deal with the symptoms of an increasingly unequal society.

The second being that the investment will never be enough because groups in society are becoming increasingly marginalised and impoverished and will therefore become an increasing burden on the NHS.

Logic, let alone the medical profession and others, leads me to conclude that if a person does not have enough to eat and does not have enough warmth then they are likely to become ill both physically and probably mentally.  So, alongside the homeless, we can add a huge swathe of the population that are on the poverty line or below it that need the services of the NHS.  Add to this those that do not have job security, zero-hour contracts being just one example, have massive financial burdens, students another example, and it is little wonder that we have an increasing need for mental health services and another drain on NHS resources.  And then of course there are the ‘bed blockers’, a horrible term as it suggests that somehow, it’s their fault, these are of course the elderly, in need of care but with nowhere to go because the social care system is in crises (As much of the right-wing pre-Brexit rhetoric has espoused, “It’ll be better when all the foreigners that work in the system leave after Brexit”).  It seems to me that if the government are to deal with the crises in the NHS, they would be better to start with investment in tackling the causes, rather than the symptoms*.

Let me turn back to the pre-election promises, the newspaper articles, and another post-election promise by Boris Johnson.

My recollection of the pre-election promises was around Brexit, the NHS, and law and order.  We heard one side saying they were for the people no matter who you were and the other promising one nation politics.  I don’t recall any of them specifically saying they recognised a crisis in this country that needed dealing with urgently, i.e. the homeless and the causes of homelessness or the demise of the social care system.   Some may argue it was implicit in the rhetoric, but I seem to have missed it.

In her article, Spratt (2019:29) quotes a Conservative candidate as saying that ‘nuisance council tenants should be forced to live in tents in a middle of a field’.  Boris Johnson’s one nation politics doesn’t sound very promising, with friends like that, who needs enemies?**

* I have even thought of a slogan: “tough on poverty, tough on the causes of poverty”.  Or maybe not, because we all know how that worked out under New Labour in respect of crime.

** The cynical side of me thinks this was simply a ploy to reduce the number of eligible voters that wouldn’t be voting Conservative but, I guess that depends on whether they were Brexiteers or not.

 

Crew, J. (2019) Homeless A&E admissions triple. i Newspaper, 12 Dec 2019, issue 2824, pg. 29.

Spratt, V. (2019) You Just didn’t see tents in London or in urban areas on this scale. It’s shocking’: Makeshift shelters are becoming increasingly common in British cities. i Newspaper, 12 Dec 2019, issue 2824, pg. 29.

Beyond education…

prison_library_at_alcatraz_federal_penitentiary_(tk)

In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of going through HE as a life changing process.  The hard skills of learning about a discipline and the issues, debates around it, is merely part of the fun.  The soft skills of being a member of a community of people educated at tertiary level, in some cases, outweigh the others, especially for those who never in their lives expected to walk through the gates of HE.  For many who do not have a history in higher education it is an incredibly difficult act, to move from differentiating between meritocracy to elitism, especially for those who have been disadvantaged all their lives; they find the academic community exclusive, arrogant, class-minded and most damning, not for them.

The history of higher education in the UK is very interesting and connected with social aspiration and mobility.  Our University, along with dozens of others, is marked as a new institution that was created in a moment of realisation that universities should not be exclusive and for the few.  In conversation with our students I mentioned how as a department and an institution we train the people who move the wheels of everyday life.  The nurses in A&E, the teachers in primary education, the probation officers, the paramedics, the police officers and all those professionals who matter, because they facilitate social functioning.  It is rather important that all our students understand that our mission statement will become their employment identity and their professional conduct will be reflective of our ability to move our society forward, engaging with difficult issues, challenging stereotypes and promoting an ethos of tolerance, so important in a society where violence is rising.

This week we had our second celebration of our prison taught module.  For the last time the “class of 2019” got together and as I saw them, I was reminded of the very first session we had.  In that session we explored if criminology is a science or an art.  The discussion was long, and quite unexpected.  In the first instance, the majority seem to agree that it is a social science, but somehow the more questions were asked, the more difficult it became to give an answer.  What fascinates me in such a class, is the expectation that there is a clear fixed answer that should settle any debate.  It is little by little that the realisation dawns; there are different answers and instead of worrying about information, we become concerned with knowledge.  This is the long and sometimes rocky road of higher education.

Our cohort completed their studies demonstrating a level of dedication and interest for education that was inspiring.  For half of them this is their first step into the world of HE whilst the other half are close to heading out of the University’s door.  It is a great accomplishment for both groups but for the first who may feel they have a long way to go, I will offer the words of a greater teacher and an inspiring voice in my psyche, Cavafy’s ‘The First Step

Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it is a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done already is a glorious thing

Thank you for entering this world.  You earn it and from now on do not let others doubt you.  You can do it if you want to.  Education is there for those who desire it.

C.P. Cavafy, (1992) Collected Poems, Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Edited by George Savidis, Revised Edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

We Want Equality! When do we want it?

Defend_equality_poster_cropped

I’ve been thinking a lot about equality recently. It is a concept bandied around all the time and after all who wouldn’t want equal life opportunities, equal status, equal justice? Whether we’re talking about gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status. religion, sex or maternity (all protected characteristics under the Equality Act, 2010) the focus is apparently on achieving equality. But equal to what? If we’re looking for equivalence, how as a society do we decide a baseline upon which we can measure equality? Furthermore, do we all really want equality, whatever that might turn out to be?

Arguably, the creation of the ‘Welfare State’ post-WWII is one of the most concerted attempts (in the UK, at least) to lay foundations for equality.[1] The ambition of Beveridge’s (1942) Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services was radical and expansive. Here is a clear attempt to address, what Beveridge (1942) defined as the five “Giant Evils” in society; ‘squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease’. These grand plans offer the prospect of levelling the playing field, if these aims could be achieved, there would be a clear step toward ensuring equality for all. Given Beveridge’s (1942) background in economics, the focus is on numerical calculations as to the value of a pension, the cost of NHS treatment and of course, how much members of society need to contribute to maintain this. Whilst this was (and remains, even by twenty-first century standards) a radical move, Beveridge (1942) never confronts the issue of equality explicitly. Instead, he identifies a baseline, the minimum required for a human to have a reasonable quality of life. Of course, arguments continue as to what that minimum might look like in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, this ground-breaking work means that to some degree, we have what Beveridge (1942) perceived as care ‘from cradle to grave’.

Unfortunately, this discussion does not help with my original question; equal to what? In some instances, this appears easier to answer; for example, adults over the age of 18 have suffrage, the age of sexual consent for adults in the UK is 16. But what about women’s fight for equality, how do we measure this? Equal pay legislation has not resolved the issue, government policy indicates that women disproportionately bear the negative impact of austerity. Likewise, with race equality, whether you look at education, employment or the CJS there is a continuing disproportionate negative impact on minorities. When you consider intersectionality, many of these inequalities are heaped one on top of the other. Would equality be represented by everyone’s life chances being impacted in the same way, regardless of how detrimental we know these conditions are? Would equality mean that others have to lose their privilege, or would they give it up freely?

Unfortunately, despite extensive study, I am no closer to answering these questions. If you have any ideas, let me know.

References

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

The Equality Act, 2010, (London: TSO)

[1] Similar arguments could be made in relation to Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in the USA.

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