Even Better CIC Jarrow
by Barry Knight
Even Better, based in Jarrow, the second applicant for the Janette Kirton-Darling Memorial Prize, has a powerful way of addressing the problem of mental health. The approach harnesses the power of the community to promote mutual support and wellbeing, while giving agency and voice to people with mental health issues.
Mental health is emerging as a major problem in our society. In the past month, figures from the Office of National Statistics show that half a million workers have dropped out of the workforce due to long-term sickness with mental health issues being the primary reason.
This is part of a long-term trend and likely to persist over time. This is because mental health is a big issue for young people. Research conducted by the Orwell Foundation in partnership with Rethinking Poverty found that mental health was the biggest issue cited by people who submitted essays for its Youth Prize. Entrants were asked:
‘If you could make one positive change to society that would lead to the biggest increase in your happiness, what would it be and why?’
A ‘word cloud’ analysis of the answers revealed the following pattern:
Even Better has core principles that govern its approach. A central one is that people with lived experience of mental health issues are able to contribute to the work. This is because lived experience of mental health is seen is seen as an asset, and not as a deficit.
People who have experienced mental distress are ideally placed to understand those who face similar issues. This has important implications for how services for mental health are organised. In the jargon, this means ‘co-production’ where people with first-hand experience of the issue work with professionals who have access to tools and techniques from their training.
Four-fifths of the board of Even Better have experienced difficulties with mental health. The founding director, clinical psychologist Dr Hannah Burman, was inspired to set up the organization partly due to her own lived experience of mental health issues.
A second principle of the work is to be firmly rooted into the local community, with the majority of board members living in Jarrow. The community base of the work, which has three centres in the area, is essential to reach people who are unlikely to be able to access statutory services.
The twin assets of lived experience and local residence mean that the organization is well-placed to give voice to people who have experienced mental distress, while simultaneously supporting people who are often the most marginalised people in our society.
Listening is at the heart of the work. People with lived experience of mental health issues receive specialist training and supervision from a clinical psychologist in the skills needed to run active listening sessions. They then provide a one-to-one listening service for others who may be lonely, stressed or experiencing mental distress.
As well as mutual support for people with lived experiences of mental health issues, Even Better works to ensure that members’ voices are heard by local people and by officials in the council and other service providers.
To take a practical example of how this is done, a ‘co-produced workshop group’ (made up of local people with lived experience, a clinical psychologist and a peer support worker) deliver workshops to raise awareness of the issues faced by people with mental health issues and to provide hints, tips and strategies for managing these. Workshops have included topics such as ‘Money, debt and mental health’ and ‘Using services: Our experiences in South Tyneside’. These are presented at a variety of venues, including council forums and community centre events.
Evaluations of the work show positive results. Self-monitoring by the ‘co-produced workshop’ group show reveals significant gains in confidence, autonomy, and wellbeing among members. In the past three month, average confidence has increased from 3 to 4 (out of 5), and community belonging increased from 2 to 3 (out of 5). Using the clinically recognised Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (SWEMWS), wellbeing scores have increased by 3 points on (where one point indicates a clinically significant difference).
Comments by members of the group give weight to these findings. A recently appointed volunteer peer mentor commented:
‘I’m in now and not only willing to talk about my vast lived experience but to guide it in a way that will hopefully give hope to other suffering warriors of illness.’
People on the receiving end of the mentoring were also highly positive about the work:
‘It’s improved my confidence massively. I used to be very shy and I never used to get involved in anything and now I don’t mind going up someone and talking to people. Being able to open up and say what you feel and how you think and not feel embarrassed to say it.’
It is not just the receiving of help, but also the giving of it that makes a big difference:
‘I like the fact that I’m hoping I can help someone and I’ve been in their situation and there was nothing there then for me, knowing that there is a safe place for someone to go to- that is helpful.’
‘Taking part in [Listening Ear Jarrow] has increased my own personal confidence… Ultimately [it] made me feel much better about myself. Helping others reminded me that I still have a lot to offer the community.’
A public official who attended one of the workshops commented:
‘It was the best, most moving and most impactful presentation I’ve ever seen – everyone involved in pulling it together should be so incredibly proud. Even after you all left, everyone was still talking about it and there were a few tears amongst the councillors.’
As well as these testimonials, members of Even Better have progressed on to employment or further volunteering as a result of our work. For example, one member is now a welfare officer at a community centre, and another has a new role in the local substance misuse support service.
[Note: there are no visual materials to accompany this piece because the work is conducted under confidential conditions]
Written by Barry Knight, based on material provided by Even Better CIC, Jarrow
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