“Helping others is the way we help ourselves” -Oprah Winfrey
Simple ideas change the world. A Clinical Psychologist, Dr Charlie Howard was taking a walk around her area. Having recently had a child, she was looking for her next “thing”. She asked random people what would make a difference in their community. “A Problem-Solving Booth right here on my street” answered a young man in the queue in a sandwich shop. “A place where people can go with the stresses in their head and where we can help each other”. The idea was genius and Charlie’s head built on it quickly. “Maybe we could try one here?” Charlie suggested, “we could do it together”. The young man smiled at Charlie and said “yeah maybe” and then his phone rang and he ran off down the street. No one knows his name and no one has seen him since. He probably has no idea just what his throwaway words have since inspired.
Problem-Solving Booths are a great way to bring members of the community together to have conversations that they might not otherwise have, by helping each other with their problems. One chair is for the “Helper”, the person listening to the problems. The other is for the “Helped”, the person describing their concerns. The aim of the Booth is that people swap roles regularly as we all have both the potential to have problems as well as to offer help.
Thrive London is a citywide movement for better mental health for Londoners supported by the Mayor of London and the London Health Board. Problem-Solving Booths have become the local arm of Thrive and we’re working out what they are, what they do and what they can do, with everyone we meet from street to street, borough to borough and organisation to organisation. It’s cool.
A simple source of hot water in Delhi is the sun heating up supply pipes. Very eco-friendly.
Another simple yet highly un-eco-friendly source is an immersion rod. I used it today after about 3 decades. It was like revisiting my university days. The plastic bucket and the broad clip reminded me of the 2 parallel burn marks on the edge of the light blue bucket in college. The soft hissing sound of the frantic molecules was all too familiar. Seeing the little eddies set off by the heat waves made me smile. All those times when I had completely forgotten about the water and got distracted only to come back to the horror of half a bucket or less of absolutely boiling hot water! Adding just the right amount of cold water was crucial especially at the peak of winters.
The geyser with a red and a green light is another old friend. My brother lives with his family in a rented house in a little village in India. The landlord and his wife live in part of the house with a separate entrance. For some reason, the guest-room (my room) bathroom geyser is shared with the land-lord. The switch happens to be in their house. This is never a problem as most people are around most of the time. We forgot to ask them to switch it on in time, hence the immersion rod.
This kind of arrangement between neighbours, land-lords and tenants is normal here. It’s no problem. It’s perfectly workable. There is no desire to change it. I suppose things like this make it a close community. It would be quite unthinkable in more ‘advanced’ settings.
Fact: 4 days is the time it took for our next-door neighbour to find out that Saagar had passed away.
This forgotten book-mark in a book being revisited after two years is an origami crane – a symbol of healing in Japan. A school kid had given it to me at Hiroshima as a token of gratitude for helping him practise his spoken English.
Paper folding started in China in the first century and reached Japan in the 6th century. Here it was cultivated as an art of understatement. Origami suggests. It implies without announcing outright. It intimates without brashness. In Japanese folklore, a crane is fabled to live for a thousand years and is held in high esteem. It is believed that folding 1000 paper cranes brings the folder’s wishes come true.
A young girl called Sadako Sasaki survived the Hiroshima bomb when she was only two years old. Less than 10 years later she was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow. The disease progressed rapidly and the prognosis was not good. She set out to make a thousand paper cranes. She could complete 644 before she died on Oct. 25, 1955, less than a year after being diagnosed. Her classmates, family and friends made more to bring them up to 1000 and buried them with Sadako.
Her story captured the imagination of the country and the world. Today, we recognize the crane as a symbol of peace and hope.
“She let out both the pain of our parents and her own suffering with each crane.”
“Her death gave us a big goal. Small peace is so important with compassion and delicacy it will become big like a ripple effect. She showed us how to do it. It is my, and the Sasaki family’s responsibility to tell her story to the world. I believe if you don’t create a small peace, you can’t create a bigger peace. I like to gather those good wishes and good will and spread to the world,” said Masahiro, her brother.
“Terrible poverty causes brain damage”, says Charles Nelson, a professor of neuroscience and paediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
In 1989, when the communists were overthrown in Romania, 170,000 children were abandoned and were living in government-run institutions under very poor conditions. Nelson and his team started studying them in the late 1990s. They found that the kids were deprived of key experiences during critical periods of development. Babies lay in cribs for their first year or more and their visual experience was limited because often the ceilings were painted white. There was no one to talk to them and care-giving was limited, so they were deprived of psychosocial stimulation. Their physical growth was greatly stunted too. The kids were very very small.
“We had a rule: no crying in front of the kids. But I can’t tell you how tough it was.”
The team wanted to find out if high-quality foster care for these kids could rectify the negative impact of poverty they might have. They recruited a sample of 136 kids, from 6-31 months of age and randomly assigned half of them to high quality foster care. The other half remained in institutional care. Foster parents from Bucharest were volunteers who had been intensively screened and interviewed. They were paid a small wage and provided with material support such as toys and diapers. The families were closely monitored by social workers.
Two years into the study they found that across the board, the kids in institutions lagged behind in language development, IQ and mental well being. The prevalence of anxiety and depression were reduced no matter how old the kids were when they were placed in foster care.
They are now about 16 years old. Those in institutions are starting to experience significant mental health issues such as psychotic disorders and paranoia. 20 of them showed a sharp drop in IQ from the age of 12.
One year following this research, the Romanian government passed a legislation banning the institutionalisation of children below the age of 2 years unless they were severely disabled. They also started government foster care.
This is a classic example of science giving rise to political will to improve lives of kids.
UK’s Child Poverty Action Group reports that 3.9 million children in this country live in poverty at present. This means more than one in 4 children are growing up in families with less than 60% of the median income. In the US, 15 million children live below the poverty line. Western levels of poverty may not be anything close to the hardship endured by many in developing countries but it has long lasting detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of children.
With a strong political will, child poverty can be alleviated but despite setting goals and targets, our government is spectacularly failing to deliver. Dealing with child poverty and its life long consequences is not a matter of political choice but that of moral duty.
(A sculpture by Ruth M, who lived with Bipolar Disorder, expressing her depression)
In the 1940s, mental hospitals were places of isolation and confinement, probably closer to prison than hospital. Netherne, in Surrey was seen as a progressive asylum at the forefront of waves of reform and development for nearly 50 years, till the eventual closure of the British asylums. They enthusiastically adopted physical treatments, now viewed as barbaric- insulin coma therapy, electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy, then seen as optimistic approaches to treatment.
Edward Adamson (1911-1996) was a pioneer of British Art Therapy. He encouraged and collected the paintings, drawings and sculptures by people compelled to live in Netherne Hospital between 1946 and 1981. He describes that many people who came to his first lecture there had shaved or bandaged heads, bruised faces and black eyes, following brain surgery.
Adamson started collecting art during his early visits when a man on a locked ward gave him the first of his several drawings done on toilet paper with a charred matchstick. He later met other people on the wards who would have had no personal possessions, working with whatever materials they could find to create something for themselves.
The Adamson Collection has 6,000 of these works of an estimated 100,000 when he retired. The collection is seen as unique in the history of art therapy of the reforming psychiatry of the 1950s and 60s, collected by an artist rather than a psychiatrist, with a strong representation of works by women. Above all it is a memorial to all those who suffered in the asylums and to the human need to express.
“Edward Adamson practiced art as healing before there were ever terms or labels like ‘Art Therapist’. Being with him for anyone was therapy and yet he didn’t play at clinician, but rather served so sweetly as a supreme friend, ‘there’ for those who had none other. There were for Edward no patients. I think that is why so many lost people in his care found their way back to themselves. Adamson’s was an alchemy of the highest sort.”
– Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, Founder/Director American Visionary Art Museum, 2011
Yesterday our Prime Minister put Mental health at the top of the national agenda. Great to have these focussed conversations in prominent places with special emphasis on schools and work places being equipped to intervene early for children and young people with difficulties. These announcements are welcome but are also met with a slow applause as this government does not have a great track record with the NHS.
“Schools will be linked to local NHS #mentalhealth services to support early intervention for Children and Young People” in PM speech.
“You can make the promises, but you need the workforce to deliver them.”
“Biggest challenge PM faces -getting funding to the front line. Services over-pressed, under-staffed + facing even more demands.” – President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
In my opinion, as long as we stick strictly to the medical model of mental illness we will never get it right as it does not put enough emphasis on prevention. We need to start with educating young parents about the family, environmental, individual and social factors that contribute to the mental well being of a child.
Thereafter the schools need to be aware that if a child is happy, he or she is more likely to perform well. Hence putting them under academic pressure can be counterproductive. Bullying policies must be strictly implemented. Kids must be allowed to fail sometimes. There is grace and learning in defeat.
By no means do I claim to have all the answers but this would be a good start. Prevention is better than cure.
Alan Turing was a lonely, awkward boy. His only friend in school died of tuberculosis in 1928. This awful event had a formative impact on the life of this young man who went on to become a brilliant mathematician and code breaker at Bletchley Park from 1939-45. Cracking the Enigma code significantly shortened World War 2 and potentially altered its outcome. He was the first man to indicate how thinking machines might be built. He later came to be known as the father of modern computing. He was one of the most influential men of his time and we owe our freedom to him. Steve Jobs wanted his company logo of the bitten apple to be associated with Turing’s love of apples.
An accomplished runner, he also had a great interest in the paranormal. And there is Turing the composer, responsible for some of the earliest computer music recorded by the BBC in Manchester. He is described as “shy, gay, witty, grumpy, courageous, unassuming and wildly successful genius”.
In 1952, he was arrested under a homophobic law for ‘gross indecency’. The chemical castration that Turing underwent thereafter was highly unjust and disgusting. Tens of thousands of less famous men were similarly prosecuted between 1885 and 1967.
He was found by his cleaner when she came in on 8 June 1954. He had died the day before of cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple beside his bed. His mother believed he had accidentally ingested cyanide from his fingers after an amateur chemistry experiment, but it is more credible that he had successfully contrived his death to allow her alone to believe this. The coroner’s verdict was suicide.
These countries still punish homosexual acts by death: Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Qatar, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Mauritania and UAE.
This time of the year is difficult for many families. Financial pressures, obligatory socialising with people whose affections may not be entirely genuine, a perceived time for evaluating various aspects of one’s life, overindulgence, having to revert back to traditional gender roles, the need for things to be just so…
Many women fear the festive period. Not a year goes by when there isn’t a seasonal rise in incidents of domestic violence reported to the police. Humberside Police Force reports that calls rose from 38% in the rest of the year to 54% in December 2015.
“For too many children across Ireland, being home at Christmas, is not a place of safety, warmth and happiness. It’s a place of fear, loneliness, pain and neglect,” said the ISPCC (Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). On Christmas day more than 1000 calls were received by their 60 strong staff on Childline service from children reporting distress due to domestic violence and/or alcohol abuse.
Pangs of loneliness are more acutely felt by the elderly and floating populace at this time of the year. Age UK works steadily on reducing loneliness in the elderly, 1.2 million of whom suffer from it on a chronic basis. Their objective is : ‘No one should have no one on Christmas’.
For those of us who have recently lost a dear one, their physical absence is more visibly, painfully and deeply felt than other times. That one less present, that one less seat on the dinner table, that one less name on the card, that one less beaming smile, that one less hug …
She lives in sheltered accommodation. As an octogenarian, it is safer. Her sons think so. When she moved in, she had hoped for some company. She likes a bit of chit-chat. She enjoys people. But she is fairly content. Every other day she neatly pins her hair up, wears one of her long skirts with a woolly jumper, wraps herself up in her sea-green duffle coat, puts on a smile and walks to the high street.
Betsy goes to the post-office to buy and post a card for her grand daughter’s birthday. She picks one with flowers and butterflies and queues. The only other person in the queue is a young woman. She has big black cordless head-phones with a ‘b’ in red covering her ears. She also has a vacant look in her eyes. It seems she is elsewhere. No chance of a chat here. When Betsy arrives at the window, the teller appears to be preoccupied. He is worried that the Post office might have to close down soon. He’s not sure how soon. That worries her. Last year her bank had shut down the branch on this high street.
She used to be able to go to the GP Surgery on days she felt a bit off. In the waiting area she often ran into someone she knew. It was good. But now the rules have changed. There are screens with smiley pictures and buttons. Appointments have to be made weeks in advance. One can’t just show up. Now, she feels like an outsider at her own surgery. She doesn’t like to go there anymore.
The grocery store is always a good place for a chat. The staff are friendly. Sometimes she even runs into familiar faces. She strolls around at her own pace and picks up a pint of milk and a pack of 80 PG tips teabags. As she approaches her favourite part, the check out desk, she is ushered in a perfunctory manner towards three ugly self check-out machines. That confuses her. She is not sure what to do.
It’s been one week since she spoke to anyone. On TV they said that the population of the world is the highest ever and rising – 7.4 billion! That must have lots of zeros.
My generation is the last one to have grown up in a world without screens. Being an army family we were often stationed at faraway places in India where the TV signal was too faint to be picked up. It was an occasional luxury to see a snowy screen in black and white that showed a hazy picture after much manipulation of the rooftop aerial and imploring of the Gods. Our neighbours were kind about sharing their big black telephone with us in case of an important call.
One day a magic box called the ‘cassette player’ arrived. It was a source of great pleasure as we could listen to songs of our choice as and when we liked as opposed to waiting for them to be played on the radio.
A radio that was presented to my parents at their wedding travelled with me to medical school. All through my time there I planned my life around it. My favourite station, All India Radio Urdu Service finished broadcasting at half past 12 at night and hence bedtime was 1 am. By the end of my 5 and a half years there, I had to use sharpened matchsticks to enable the worn little bandwidth buttons to maintain electrical contact. I depended on it. It was my most prized possession, my window to the world.
I remember standing in queues to make phone calls from a manned telephone booth without a door or walls. At the time it wasn’t fun as my side of the conversation was easily audible to all present. There was no time or space for small talk as I was most aware of everyone around especially those awaiting their turn.
That was a beautiful world and so is this. Now it’s so wonderfully easy to stay connected with people all over the world, to share our thoughts and ideas. Our screens can be our windows to the world and allow us to connect across previously unfathomable distances. It has been a blessing for me to be able to share Saagar with you. Thank you for walking with me.