Reflections on a Compassionate Gathering by Nicky Hayward

A long-awaited compassionate take on ‘mental health’ is gaining momentum – join us on 4th-5th October to find out more!

On November 18th 2016  “some 100 people concerned to change the face of mental health care in this country gathered for an inspiring one-day conference run by Compassionate Mental Health … Part of the growing movement looking beyond the bio-medical model to centre, instead, on the need for compassion – importantly compassion for self as well as for others – the day set out to inform, inspire and empower both people working with mental distress and those, themselves, living with it. The impressive range of speakers focused on the need to move away from an assumption that emotional distress was nothing more than a symptom of biological illness. Walking alongside the person with compassion was more effective than electric shocks and long-term medication, they emphasised”.

These are the introductory paragraphs from journalist Jean Silvan Evans’ excellent review and outline of the inspiring event that a friend and I travelled  for several hours through a wintery landscape to attend.  I thought I’d add some of my own reflections of the first event to offer readers a bit more of a flavour of what to expect from the upcoming two day gathering that’s being staged on the strength of the success of the first two events.

It would be superfluous for me to provide another overview of the inaugural event myself, so I’ve decided instead to recall and explore some of my personal highlights.  You can read Jean’s full article and systematic appraisal of the proceedings here.

The Importance of Mattering

The late autumn morning had already started well for me. I’d driven over a frosted Severn Bridge with an old friend and former work colleague who, like most dear friends, I don’t see nearly enough.  We’d shared stories, got a bit more up to date and given each other support (in that effortless way women seem to be able to naturally co-counsel) on the journey.  So by the time our little car was cautiously navigating the icy parking lot, we had already well-and-truly embraced the spirit of the day.

Walking carefully across the slippery tarmac, we joined a queue of new arrivals and were greeted not only with attractive welcome packs – studded with vibrant colour (and arty black-and-white) photographs of the speakers, together with  mini-biographies of each of them – and an outline of the programme for the day, but we were each also given two white postcards with the legend “YOU MATTER” printed on one side and, on the other, two symbols: the first, a circle in the process of being completed and, the other, a heart.  We were instructed to keep one for ourselves and give the other to someone else as and when we felt moved to during the day.  I wasn’t surprised to discover later that this thoughtful and personal touch was the idea of Andy Bradley who, we are told on the Charter For Compassion website, “imagines a world in which when we are vulnerable we can rely on those who care for us to be kind; a world in which those who give care are recognised and appreciated”.

He’s the guy with a serene Buddhist kind of vibe about him who softens the intellectual intensity of such events by suggesting yoga-style intermissions, the capturing of thoughts on attractively coloured, symbolically-shaped, slips of paper and taking a few short minutes to connect with someone who consequently ceases to be a stranger.

I realised with frustration later that evening that I’d forgotten to give anyone the second “YOU MATTER” card.  A few days later, however, it proved to be exactly what my daughter – recently out of school and struggling with the novel pressures of university life – needed to receive. A perfect outcome – I’m sure Andy would agree …

Sharing our Stories

Storytelling aficionado Malcolm Stern, whose site The Courage to Change – The Alchemy of Transformation is well worth a leisurely browse, wove a thread of continuity throughout the day, his unique interpersonal style complementing Samaritans’ Sarah Stone’s warm welcome and introductions.  He confessed that he had spent most of his life “running away from mental illness” before he discovered that “until we reach a certain stage in our collective evolution, not only do we need support from people of like mind, we have a duty to seek that support”.

In the afternoon, I went to Malcolm’s ‘Telling Our Stories’ workshop and for me it was the high point of the day.  In his opening speech that morning, he had said he’d only realised that he needed to speak his own truth aloud – and that we also need to give voice to adverse situations we’ve survived – when he had first spoken up in front of a group of people.

We went on to experience for ourselves the almost trance-like atmosphere that can be invoked within a sympathetic, open-minded and non-judgemental community gathering, when it is convened for the purpose of offering individual members the opportunity to speak out from a place of profound authenticity. In a safe and confidential environment, two people went on to explore key fragments of their story.  They appeared to begin at a randomly selected and yet pivotal moment, in each case described so vividly and cinematically that I am revisiting not only the images they described but also the sounds, sensations and emotions they invoked now as I cast my mind back nearly a year later.

I don’t really understand went on in that room – in which most of us had not met before the session, or certainly before that day, and from which we emerged with a sense of camaraderie, and having communed on some deeper level – but I gathered that we had touched upon some archetypal experiences that resonated with all of us and graced us with a sense of intimately shared humanity.

I will never forget those stories … or the feeling of them, anyhow, even as the details blur. Malcolm speaks of “the alchemy of transformation”, and it was a truly extraordinary interlude. So, having seen that Malcolm is once again taking part in the upcoming event at Fforest you can imagine that I didn’t take more persuasion to sign up immediately on that count alone.

Power of reaching out

Jonny Benjamin was the second speaker of the morning.  His story, together with that of the man who was at the time our local mayor, is recorded in the article that the two guys’ courage and candour inspired me to write when I first heard their moving accounts at an event in Bath last April. At the end of 2016 Jonny was awarded an MBE for his tireless campaigning work. We naturally didn’t have any idea at the November Compassionate Mental Health gathering that this was on the cards.  He spoke to the audience, as ever, in disarmingly hard-hitting and straightforward terms, reflecting:

“When you’re in the place I was in, when you have no faith left, to have someone come and say they believe in you … (the stranger) said to me, so casually, “I think you’ll get better” …  it was incredibly powerful. No one had ever said this to me before; not judged me”.

We kept coming back to this simple truth – indeed, I’d say it was the essential message of the day.  In motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia’s words: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around”.

After lunch, Charlie Heriot-Maitland – who you can read more about on the Balanced Minds site – spoke about the way we can use science to support what we physically know about safety. Charlie told us about the natural adaptive healing processes in the body, and the fact that the human mind will always become calmer in contexts of perceived safety and in response to nurturing, remarking:

“I believe it is our job not to launch in with elaborate techniques and interventions, but to try to create safe and compassionate contexts around a person in order to allow their brain space to heal; for them to find a way through”.

One of my favourite books on this sort of subject, which explores such themes in very accessible language illustrating key points with case histories (a.k.a. everyday stories)  is Healing Without Freud or Prozac by the late Dr David Servan-Schreiber – reviewed here in The Guardian.

Walking alongside

Retired psychiatrist Sue Reubens took to the floor near the end of the afternoon.  She cut a striking figure in a stunning multicoloured woollen jacket. I liked her straight away. Sue spoke about institutionalized power imbalances within the ‘mental health care’ system and the need to reinstate the locus of control back in the domain of people who are experiencing emotional distress themselves.  She indicated that, to her mind, the most convincing possibility for progressive change lies in the shifting sands which dictate whose voice is really being listened to at a given time.

If people would only realise it, she said, what ‘service users’ say these days really makes a difference – the rise of the culture of the ‘expert patient’ and of special interest pressure groups means that they really do potentially have power.  “I can say something hundreds of times, and people will say ‘What do you know?'”, she told us. I found this very interesting.  I am not a ‘mental health’ professional myself, but am someone who has survived both experiences of intense distress and interaction with the ‘services’ (concerning instances of both my own and family members’ disturbed equilibrium).  This statement alone told me exactly where Sue is coming from, as a humble and authentic fellow human:

“If you are able to walking alongside patients/people who are needing help, you can learn a lot from them …” (she didn’t say anything about them learning from her).

I have met a number of psychiatrists and other ‘mental health’ professionals in recent years, both within multi-disciplinary meetings (where I was, usually, a token stakeholder representing ‘end users’ of services). Dr Sue, for me, exemplified ultimate humility and I, in turn, found it humbling to learn that her experiences in what most would view as a ‘privileged’ professional position had led her to the simple realisation: “For me, it’s just about doing my best; what I can do”.

I couldn’t help reflecting that, as in all areas of life, if we could dispense with a sense of being in different camps and needed to defend our corner, we’d enable ourselves to make a lot more progress.  To this end, I went on to tell the assembly about the Only Us Campaign and social movement, with its straplines “No Them and Us, Only Us” and “Not one in four; four in four” … we are all vulnerable, and all have a tipping point; pile enough adversity and pressure on any one of us, and rest assured we will all crumble.

Being in the Moment

The other speaker whose words deeply touched me was Nadine Denneth, whose expansive and unconditional approach to her father’s sudden disintegration into an altered state of being following his mother’s death struck me as profoundly courageous and a deep act of love. She managed to expand the mere ten minutes or so her words occupied, through an expertly crafted and delivered speech, to embrace more of resonance – and offering more food for thought –  than many people will manage in hours’ of lecture time.  She engaged us all from the outset by asking us to consider the concept of truly being ‘in the moment’.

Nadine’s subject matter proved to be keenly relevant to me, as it transpired that her father – like my mother – had been given a diagnosis of ‘manic depression’ when he was young.  However, her experience of the fallout from that and mine diverged there, as my growing up years and adult life were partly shaped by the effect Mum’s troubled being – and, I now know, by the stories we were told about the significance of what was going on, and how to interpret and respond to it, by professionals – whereas Nadine mentioned that, although her father had had four episodes significant enough to have been considered ‘breakdowns’ in the intervening years, she had somehow been protected from experiencing first-hand the way he manifested at those times.  Consequently, she told us, his manic episode four years before, had been her first encounter with this version of her father.

I’m sure it was largely because it was a brand new experience for her that Nadine felt able to resist the temptation to prejudge what was happening, and to enter into her father’s altered state of reality with him ‘with an open mind’; to ‘live in the moment’ and allow him to do so too.  When he checked into a five star hotel in London, she enjoyed on his behalf the fact that he felt able to do so – to spend some of the hard-earned money he’d been so disciplined in saving; never taking a holiday to date.

Nadine watched in amusement as he ordered champagne and caviar, wandered around the hotel chatting with people in his dressing gown and slippers and showed himself to possess hidden talents in the acting and comedy departments.  “Good for you! Go for it!”, she thought, remarking: “It was the first time I’d seen my dad really come to life”.  However, her story took a dark turn when his behaviour was reported as anti-social. “He wasn’t disturbing anyone; just wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing in that environment,” Nadine reflected.  You can listen to the full story here – what transpired, and the happy ending: that Nadine has been able to utilize n.ableD , the service her father’s predicament inspired her to set up (which helps people get back on their feet, and did so literally in Nadine’s dad’s case), to help support him back to a dignified and healthy version of himself.

Compassionate Mental Health is proving innovative in providing regular gathering space for a diversity of people from all backgrounds who are seeking greater understanding of each other, as fellow members of the human race, and trying to find a way together to discover a kinder, more sympathetic, relational response to life’s inevitable pain. There are still places available at the upcoming event on October 4-5th which offers a stunning line-up of speakers and facilitators working at the cutting edge of innovation (and re-visitation of ancient wisdom) in the field, but keep an eye on the site too as there are plans for further gatherings in 2018. It is being held in an idyllic setting of Fforest in West Wales. Watch this video here about the second gathering and be inspired.

N.B.Welsh charity Gofal and Hearing Voices Network Cymru has substantially subsidized a number of places for those who are on a low income as the result of having experienced setbacks in life due to ‘mental ill health’ in the family. There is also cut-price shared accommodation available at Fforest for only £35 a night. Other prices on the website. Register here

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