Life Affirming

The experience of Mental Health First Aider training

I hadn’t intended to become a Mental Health First Aider in 2019 but when a couple of my dearest friends experienced mental health crises, I became aware that my love and my compassion could only go so far in supporting them. 

At times I felt totally inadequate and, though I was treading carefully, I was fearful of making things worse. I became aware that I needed and wanted to be better informed to support them more fully. Especially when, with all that was going on for them, they felt utterly overwhelmed and consumed, and so chose to withdraw.

When the opportunity of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training crossed my radar unexpectedly, I was ready to step in. I signed up for the MHFA England two day adult first aider training programme delivered by Imagine Independence, a charity working together with people who have mental health issues and other challenges.

Mental health issues are common. We all have mental health; sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not, and that affects our ability to function daily, it may also come with physical symptoms. 

Physical First Aid is common place in our communities,
now Mental Health First Aid is available

Yet while we are accustomed to the contribution of physical First Aiders across our communities, the concept of mental health First Aiders is relatively new.

Betty Kitchener and Professor Tony Jorm of MHFA International pioneered Mental Health First Aid programmes in Australia in 2000. Their work gathered global momentum and now Mental Health First Aid England offers training to empower community members ‘to provide better initial support to people developing or in a mental health crisis.’

The programme does not require entry qualifications, all that’s needed is a desire to offer first aid assistance when it comes to identifying and supporting someone who is developing a mental health issue or is in a mental health crisis. Nor is it a substitute for professional mental health advice; part of the first aid is to gently encourage appropriate professional help and other supports.

Joining the group of trainees at Imagine’s office on Hope Street in Liverpool – how beautifully appropriate – I had no preconceptions about the two days ahead. I didn’t know anyone who had been on the programme and as the reality of embarking on the course kicked in, I felt apprehensive.

I needn’t have worried.  Ant Dowell introduced himself as our programme tutor and immediately set the friendly and personal tone. There was audible relief in the room when the importance of humour was underlined as a part of the training; we would be dealing with big issues yet there would be opportunity along the way to have a laugh about what life can throw at us sometimes. 

Group agreements for the training sessions

Everyone was invited to share the reason for attending. Some, like me, had put themselves forward; others had been ‘voluntold’ by their employer! 

Ant outlined the days ahead; we’d be working together in pairs and small groups, we’d watch short case study films and see art created by people with mental health issues to express how they felt and we would be creating our own group visuals to explore what we understood of different mental health issues and experiences.

MFHA course materials

Course materials were handed out, a chunky manual, a slim workbook and a pocket size pouch containing a folded leaflet outlining ALGEE, a neat mnemonic to assist in remembering the sequence of steps to gently offer mental health first aid assistance to someone in need. 

Working in two groups, we explored how different aspects of mental health feel
and we shared our findings through visuals

Throughout the training we were asked to call out to Ant what ALGEE stands for. By the time the course concluded, ALGEE was successfully ingrained in everyone’s hearts and minds! Though it does feels reassuring for me to have the handy fold out leaflet in my purse for reference at any time too.

The MFHA adult two-day programme explores mental health issues and mental health crises to improve knowledge, reduce stigma, and increase first aid actions towards people with mental health issues.

We soon bonded as a group, working together, sharing our experiences, our insight and our ignorance at times too! Ant emphasised there is no shame in not knowing; the focus of the programme is to encourage better understanding. 

In the safe and confidential environment, fellow trainees chose to offer up first hand experience, which brought powerful insight and even greater understanding to discussions and the learning curve. 

Equally, there was no pressure whatsoever to share. If at any time, anyone felt they wished to leave the room, without explanation, that important act of self-care was positively encouraged. ‘Be aware when it’s not ok for you to talk about something’ Ant urged us all. I found the whole training experience one of compassion and support.

MHFA training covers

Mental Health Issues

Depression

Anxiety disorders

Easting disorders

Psychosis

Substance misuse

Mental Health Crises

Suicidal thoughts and behaviours

Self harm

Panic attacks

Reactions following a traumatic event

Severe psychotic states

Severe effects from substance abuse and aggressive behaviour

I found that some of the programme content stirred up difficult feelings for me and shone light on experiences that that had been confusing for me to cope with because my understanding at the time was limited. In that sense, the training, though rewarding, is demanding. I would suggest that anyone undertaking the programme allows for plenty of gentle breathing space on completion and perhaps some lovely treats too!

Others from the group with whom I trained have kindly shared their feelings about the experience and I hugely appreciate their honesty and compassion.

Cath receiving her MFHA certificate from Ant

Laura, a regulatory specialist, explained how she joined the programme.’I am an office first aider.  The HR department at the company I work for offered the course to first aiders and I volunteered. The course was not something I was aware existed and I thought it would be really interesting and useful to take part.’

I wondered if aspects of the training had touched Laura in the way they had stirred things in me. She explained that much of the course had impacted her.

‘One thing I was shocked at is the numbers when discussing the rates of suicide, if more people are aware of anxiety and depression symptoms then hopefully the right help could be put in place to help people who feel like suicide is an option.

‘I feel like we have all met people in all walks of life who have suffered with anxiety and depression or have lost somebody to suicide and don’t necessarily understand, the course puts how the people dealing with these mental health illnesses are feeling.

‘We touched on eating disorders in the course and I found this interesting as I think there is a lot of pressure, on mostly teenagers, to look a certain way, this could be due to the rise of social media over the years. It think it is great that Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 centred on this.

‘I found the course eye opening and very useful on how to approach people who may need your help and especially how to communicate in a non-judgmental way.

‘I think it taught me to not only look out for colleagues but also for family and friends. Sometimes we are busy going about our everyday life and may not realise that someone is struggling with their mental health so it is important to look for any signs.  Also, If there are mental health first aiders in the work place, colleagues may feel they are supported and can speak to the designated people confidentially.’

Laura feels the MFHA training is a truly positive experience. ‘I would highly recommend the course! I found the programme very interesting. Although at times it is hard content to deal with, it was delivered in a great way by Ant and also with a lovely group of people. I feel that everyone on the course will be great at putting the communication skills taught on the course to use if need be.’

Steve is another of the participants. Known in his workplace as Steve g, he added that he hopes his role in life ‘apart from being husband, dad and granddad, is to be a better human being.’

I asked Steve what prompted him to put himself forward for training. ‘It may sound dramatic but it has become clear to me how easy it is for someone with mental health issues to slip into a position of being suicidal. If we can help one person avoid this then it is a small victory, as the ripples of someone completing suicide can spread far and wide.’

I wondered which aspects of the training had especially touched him. ‘Despite being a wide cross section of society I believe the honesty of everyone during the training touched me. It is a refreshing change that people could be so open regarding how mental health issues touched them.

‘It has reinforced my opinions that most people with mental health issues suffer in silence. Part of this is due to a fear of how they are going to be received in public and more important to us the work place. The only way we can start to overcome this is by talking. This training has given me more confidence to approach people who are suffering and my management to talk about these issues.

‘Listening to someone can be the first step on the long road to recovery. If you can add appropriate none judgmental conversation and signposting to this it is a bonus. But the most important thing to remember is that we were given two ears and one mouth so we should use them in that proportion. My advice to anyone considering the training is to “just have a go” I believe you will not be disappointed and it may remove some of the preconceived ideas that you have about mental health issues.’

The experience of training with such compassionate people from different walks of life was hugely uplifting. Jase also attended. His motto is ‘Happiness is not a recipe, it’s a menu of choice’. He describes his role in life as ‘Helping others find their own kind of happiness.’ Jase kindly shared what inspired him to sign up. 

‘I am leading our wellbeing programme for our business and whilst I have done this in a huge global retail organisation, I really wanted to understand the role of a MHFA and understand mental wellbeing in more depth to inform me how I can move our programme forward and create an environment where employees feel empowered to discuss any concerns they have, that leaders of people are confident to approach employees where they believe there to be an issue and respond in a way that supports employees to make choices that help them improve their mental wellbeing.

‘I want to create an environment at work where it is ok not to be ok, to talk about mental wellbeing issues and help employees get the support they need to be their best at work and home.’

I asked Jase what aspects of the training especially impacted him.

‘The biggest impact was the exercises that enabled me to empathise with what someone is likely to be going through when they have a mental wellbeing issue. That was really powerful for me.’

I wondered what might have changed for Jase.  ‘My mindset. I was always very open and always saw mental health like physical health, that there was ups and downs and it can be improved and conditions managed. It just really helped me to understand what some of the conditions looked and felt like and how the ALGEE approach can really help in pretty much most situations and how it builds on the skills we already expect a leader of people to have. It builds on the foundation we have already started in the organisation.

 ‘If you think you already have a good insight and not sure if it (MFHA First Aider training) will add any value – it certainly will. We had mental health workers with us who deal with this every day and they had take-aways from this training.’

The class of May 2019, happy Mental Health First Aiders with their certificates

If you are interested in becoming a Mental Health First Aider, then please contact MHFA England. Training providers delivering the programme across the UK include Imagine Independence.

My thanks to all at Imagine Independence and to everyone in the wonderful group of compassionate people who journeyed towards their Mental Health First Aider certificate with me. The experience was life affirming!

Two Look At Two

Robert Frost (1874-1963) wrote verse that captured the essential experience of his rural life in New England.

His language was comfortable and easily accessible. In nature, he observed life at large. He was a natural philosopher who noted, through the flow of the seasons, how a moment, a meeting, an action, or a brief conversation may become deeply significant when we reflect on our experiences. Often he was aware of the resonance in the exact moment too.

While his pared down verse speaks simply it expresses the profound.

I think of Frost often when I am on the hill in the remote northwest highlands of Scotland. Through the seasons I am aware of powerful moments of what feels like magic.

Meeting deer in the woods, or along their favourite path, I recall Frost’s romantic poem, Two Look At Two, a spellbinding encounter between humans and animals.

In the poem, a pair of lovers walking at dusk come upon a doe. Between them a wall, yet their connection is powerful.

She saw them in their field, they her in hers.’

She shows no fear. The lovers sense enchantment and imagine that seeing her might be all of it, yet she is joined by a buck, who emerges round a spruce tree. He comes close, and he too shows no fear.

All four seem under a spell.

Why are the deer ‘unscared’? Do they sense the lovers’ love? What is the poem showing us? Perhaps that when we become as fearless as the deer, we deepen our capacity to connect in extraordinary ways?

The precious moments of the encounter seem a magic spell, an ‘unlooked-for-favour‘. A great wave of love.

From ‘Robert Frost Selected Poems’ published by Penguin

Frost’s poem dances through my thoughts when I encounter deer.

Here’s a recent meeting, and yes, it is enchantment to be this close and trusted. A great wave of love.

Two Look At Two

Hideaway!

Ever dream of cosy bolthole?

A simple place with big views and the glow of a warming fire?

Work takes me throughout Britain, often off the beaten track. And some of the most special cottages that I pass live long in the memory. Especially when they beautifully situated by the ocean, or overlooking a sea loch, and when some hint of the owner’s existence is evident.

Both whitewashed simple sanctuaries below are in hideaway coastal places that I visit fairly often. And every time I am there, I smile at the thought of blissfully happy residents!

Down a track in the far north west highlands of Scotland
Along a sleepy lane in far west Wales

Mark’s Story

Mental Health Awareness Week

Mark

Please meet my friend Mark, an insightful and sensitive man who has asked me to help him share the story of his life experiences so that others might perhaps avoid the cycle of homelessness and drugs that has held him in its grip for some twenty-five years.

Mark is not using drugs currently. We meet in the dockland area of Liverpool at Cotton Street Homeless Shelter, a bright and non-judgemental safe environment for people in need. The city is not his natural environment, he feels much more at ease in the peace of woodlands and hills in north Wales, where his story began.

Mark was born in Wrexham. When he was just a few months old, his parents carried out an armed robbery on a local post office. They were captured and held in custody. For two days they did not reveal that they had left two babies home alone. Police rescued Mark and his sister Katrina and took both siblings to a foster family in the rural village of Rhydymwyn in the upper Alyn valley. 

While the area is known for mineral works and a quarry, the pastoral scenery moved Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) to compose ‘The Rivulet’, a short piano piece that evokes the serenity of the landscape. The German composer stayed with a family friend in the village and wrote to his father, ‘Wales is a wonderfully beautiful country, but this sheet is so small that I will have to describe it to you in person.’

His connection with Rhydymwyn is celebrated on an inscribed plaque on Nant Alyn Road. Author Charles Kingsley also receives an honourable mention, he too loved the wooded landscape and walked with streams through the hills.

For Mark, a young boy taken into the care of a foster family, Rhydymwyn was a special place to grow up. ‘I don’t know much about my biological parents’ he explains. ‘My mum was an alcoholic, I know that. But I call Doug and my Margaret my parents. I was with them and their three children for a long time. I wasn’t adopted but it was home with them.’

In a village of around eight hundred people, everybody knew everyone else’s business. Mark’s parents were respected in the community and his dad worked at the mine.

Mark was a nature boy, exploring caves, scrambling through woods, following trails.  ‘I miss it’ he says. The family lived next door to the quarry from where rock was transported to build coastal defenses. 

The boyhoood thrill of watching of watching rumbling trucks pass to and fro inspired Mark to become a lorry driver. ‘I never made it’ he laughs. ‘I wasn’t allowed into the quarry grounds but I’d stand by the gate, waiting to ask the drivers where they were going. They all knew me and my dad knew them. In the summer holidays I was allowed to ride with them. I loved it. If I got lucky, I could do several trips a day to the sea defences at New Brighton and Colwyn Bay.

I remember a time when it was really wild at Colwyn Bay, there were huge waves on the beach and I was watching from the lorry. It was special! On the journey the drivers would ask if I was behaving myself for mum and dad. Sometimes I got into mischief and in the small village I was usually blamed for all kind things I hadn’t done. I was accused of smashing up a greenhouse once but we were away that bank holiday weekend.’ Though his parents made Mark’s innocence clear, the child never received an apology from his accusers.

‘I was troublesome though’ Mark admits freely. ‘I didn’t feel right in school. I was struggling; I found it hard to control my temper. I had tantrums. Looking back, I was disruptive. So I’d bunk off. I’d go to the caves or the woods. It was peaceful there. I’d just sit and watch the badgers. My dad usually knew where to find me and he’d take me home. Though there was a ruined church in the hills he didn’t know about.’ He smiles at the memory.

Mark recognises that his loving foster family did their best to keep him safe but as he grew older, they struggled to cope. Social services offered them a respite break and sent Mark to a north Wales children’s home. He remains unable to speak of the trauma he experienced there.

On return to the family home he had nightmares. ‘I couldn’t sleep. I went into mum and dad’s room; I woke them up and told them I knew I was going to be sent back to the children’s home. They sent me to bed but sure enough, I was right. When they needed a break later, I got sent back to Broughton. It was a horrible experience.’ I see in Mark’s face, and in the tension overtaking his body, how deeply painful trauma remains.

‘We had a good life.’ he says, changing direction. ‘We had family holidays once a year. We didn’t go abroad, we stayed in Wales. Mum and dad taught me a lot. When I needed stuff like trainers, mum would deduct a bit of my pocket money to show me the importance of saving up and the value of things.’ 

And while Mark was a challenge, he knew instinctively where to find peace for himself. ‘I always had those places, the caves, the woods, the dilapidated old church, where I’d feel comfy and at ease. Sometimes I’d cry to myself in my own space where I could just be me, away from everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I had mates in the village but I liked my own space. I needed it, still do.’

Mark left home after his fifteenth birthday, though he stayed in the village, moving in with a friend’s family. He quit school to work as a labourer in a steel and timber yard in Buckley. When he was sixteen he got a flat of his own. Around this time his sister was in a relationship with a man she was to marry.

‘I begged her not to marry him’ Mark remembers. ‘I thought she was too young. She didn’t need a wedding certificate to live with him.’ When he heard from others that she was being abused, he went to see her at work.

She had black eyes and wounds across her face. ‘I could see what he had done to my sister; my only real family, and I knew I had to do something to stop him. Straight away I went and bought a can of petrol and poured it through their letterbox. I set their flat on fire. At the time, I wanted him to be in there. Now I am glad he wasn’t.’

Mark was arrested for arson, convicted and sent to a young offenders establishment in Shropshire. ‘I was detained for five years. I knew I had done wrong. I accepted my punishment and knew I just had to get on with prison. My sister divorced her husband after the fire and we stayed strong together.’

Reaching his twenty first birthday, Mark was moved to Walton prison in Liverpool. ‘I’d heard about it and I was terrified. I learned to keep my mouth shut. I learned you have to keep your head down and just get on with your jail. I didn’t think about anything else. You blank things out just to get through. Prison is volatile. Things happen that might not be your fault but you can get pulled in. So I stayed out of trouble and I didn’t give cheek to the officers.’

In this environment, Mark discovered drugs. ‘Prison woke me up to another world. I was a kid from a sleepy village in Wales. I’d never used drugs but going to jail was a culture shock. One day the vicar came to see me. He told me Doug, my foster dad, had an aggressive form of cancer. When he left, my pad mate asked if I wanted heroin. I turned it down but later, when I was looking at him, all smashed and relaxed on the bed, I thought I want to be like that and so I took a smoke. I knew nothing about addiction. I didn’t know then what heroin would do to me. I just knew you got off your cake.’

‘By the time I left prison at twenty-three, I was a heroin addict and didn’t even realise it. A mate told me. He’d come to pick me up, and as were driving back to Rhyl, he noticed I was feeling sick. He was using himself and recognised the symptoms. He offered me a smoke, said it would sort me out. It did. I felt brand new. That’s when I realised I needed heroin, not for the buzz, but just to function.’

Breaking free from heroin is a monumental achievement and addiction remains a daily battle even in recovery. Mark has been in and out of drug use for years. ‘I’d get clean for a long time and then something would happen in my life and I’d go back to it, and the stealing, the robbing cars and breaking into houses to fund it. I’d get caught, I’d go back to prison and I’m not proud of any of it.’

Five years ago, Mark became aware of an abscess in the groin area of his right leg. ‘I knew it was there, I felt it. But the next fix was more important. I’d say ‘I’ll go to the doctor after the next fix.’ That was more of a priority to me than getting the doctor.’

When the abscess burst, Mark was in his council flat and fortunate to be with friends who called an ambulance. Rushed to hospital, he learned his leg would be amputated and he wouldn’t be going anywhere for six months. 

‘I lost my flat while I was in there because it wasn’t suitable for a wheelchair user. I felt like scum in hospital. I was a drug user and I’d done this to myself. I just shut down from everyone.’ 

When the time came to leave, Mark was deemed, by Chester Council, to have made himself homeless intentionally because his flat was unsuitable for a wheelchair user.  ‘I came out of hospital and went to the homeless hostels but they had no places available for people with wheelchairs so I stayed on the streets. Later the council found me a room for thirty days at a Travelodge in Liverpool. After that, payment stopped and I went back to the street. Now I’m here and I want to make changes.’

‘None of this is self pity. I don’t blame anyone for where I am. I got myself here and there comes a time when you need to make change. If I don’t, I’ll be in the ground.’ I ask Mark about the bandage on his leg. ‘I had cuts and scratched at the scabs. My fingers were dirty from the street. The cuts got infected and turned into ulcers.’

Mark has asked me to share his story with you because he is determined to raise awareness of how choices around drugs impact the users, their families and friends. 

‘If I can change one life, for someone not to use any drug – cannabis, ecstasy, spice, heroin and all the rest – then I’ve achieved something. I want people to just say no. Please don’t make the choices I did.’

And if Mark could have three wishes, what might they be?

‘First I’d have my family back. After dad and mum died, our family split and I’ve lost touch with all of them, including my sister. Second, I’d have my leg back. And third, I would not have made the mistakes I’ve made in life.’

This takes you to a version of Mendelssohn’s beautiful ‘Rivulet’

May Magic!

Extraordinary magic is at play in the semi ancient woodland of Speke Hall, an outstanding Tudor mansion situated on the shores of the River Mersey and just a few miles from the vibrant city centre of Liverpool.

Step into the magic…



The picture book hall is a fairytale wattle and daub building, dating from the 1500s. And while a visit to the characterful and historic interior is very special, for me the experience of the bluebell wood is out of this world!

I choose to go when the woods are quiet, when sweet birdsong fills the air and unseen fairies might dance through fresh green fronds of unfolding fern.

Home sweet home! The Clough woodland of Speke Hall on the banks of the River Mersey

In the month of May a special adventure is to follow weaving paths through a scented ocean of blue. Soon the Bell Tree appears. Breathtaking! The sculptural sound installation is the joyful creation of artist Serena Korda. Bedecked with 300 porcelain bells, the ancient oak rises out of a blue haze. The iridescent bluebells are associated traditionally with constancy, sorrow and grief.

Their magic is slow to colonise; the journey from seed to bloom is 5-7 years. When the leaves are crushed underfoot by careless walkers, the photosynthesis process to produce food is impaired. The plant may never recover and so it is important to keep to paths, and to be aware also that it is against the law to intentionally pick, uproot or destroy bluebells.

The Bell Tree at Speke Hall, Liverpool


Extraordinary sights and sounds deep in the woods



The experience is utterly dreamy! The Bell Tree enchants and the sweet bluebell ocean is deeply intoxicating!

Calling in the nature spirits!

Artist Serena Korda explains that her creation is designed to celebrate the seasons and transform anyone who sees it into a nature spirit. I love that concept!

The wonderful experience feels like tripping through a picture book! Turn the page to step out of the woodland and into the formal garden where the magnificent Tudor hall is revealed. Discover inside secret priest’s holes and glorious Jacobean and Victorian furnishings.

Speke Hall, Liverpool
The north front of Speke Hall

The hall survives and is available to visit largely due to the determination of Adelaide Watt who inherited the estate as a young girl.

On her 21st birthday in 1878 she assumed management of the property, grounds and 17 farms. A fascinating woman and a progressive landowner, Adelaide had clear ideas of what she wanted to achieve. Her tenants were expected to comply with her request to attend church and vote Conservative!

Adelaide was determined and capable, undaunted by Victorian society dominated by men. She was informed and took great care to be personally involved in any developments that might impact her riverside estate, including the Manchester Ship Canal. She opposed the route of the project fearing that it would impact the currents of the River Mersey. Accordingly changes were made.

Following Adelaide’s death, Speke Hall was managed by her butler, Thomas Watmore and other house staff. In 1942 the magnificent estate was passed on to the National Trust.

Porcelain bells created by Serena Korda to bedeck the boughs of the Bell Tree

.

Pioneering Adelaide Watt

Aye Write Festival 2019

Central Station mosaic, Glasgow

To wonderful Glasgow, where I was invited be among the happy gathering of authors at a cultural highlight in the city’s year, the prestigious and vibrant book festival Aye Write.

Another lovely bag from another lovely literary festival! I’ve quite a collection of these now!

It is always an honour to speak of my writing and researching process. And to share my inspiration, images and insight with people seeking to discover more about my work and about the north west highlands of Scotland.

The joyful yellow brochures and posters is festival sunshine right across Glasgow!

A joy for my latest book North Coast Journey to be received so kindly at the Mitchell Library venue by a lovely crowd, and great to hear questions, and stories of others’ experiences of the far north highlands.

The fun of connecting with people and sharing inspiration is cool!

I was especially touched by a teenage girl and her mum who are planning a highland odyssey together. And an older gentleman who shared beautiful memories of his family traveling with a caravan on fiendish mountain roads in the early 1950s.

He was moved to tears at the memory of the beach at Achmelvich, where he made sandcastles with his sister.

It is an honour to be asked to sign in person my books. for those who queue in line so patiently, I am always deeply appreciative of that.

Having worked in professional theatre, I totally appreciate the huge behind the scenes efforts in hosting any kind of event such as this. The tech crews, the ushers, the ticket sales team, the book sales teams and the inspirational programme curators are all awesome and no festival happens without their passion!

So thank you for a great time Glasgow!

And in keeping with my own little tradition of a special treat at the end of every public appearance, this time I opted for a delicious hunk of cake over Earl grey tea with a friend at Patisserie Valerie on Glasgow Central station!

I am not a big cake eater yet when the mood takes me, I make it special!

The wonderful mosaic at Glasow’s Central station
Glasgow’s coat of arms celebrates the extraordinary achievements of the city’s patron saint, Mungo
Glasgow is among my favourite cities
This mural, seen from the train, explains why!