I had the pleasure of chairing a seminar last week on the issue of Young Carers. Some excellent presenters and a great audience with a lot of enthusiasm to do something about the issue.
I’ve been aware of the issue of Young Carers for a while but the event brought some of the challenges into focus for me.
First of all the numbers. In the last census in 2011 166,000 people in England were identified as young carers. That is 20% more than the comparable figure in the 2001 census. But it is also by all accounts a massive underestimate of the real picture and other surveys have suggested the numbers may be as great as 700,000. This reflects, in many cases, the reluctance of many young people to identify themselves as carers, in particular if they are caring for someone with mental health problems or substance misuse issues.
The second is understanding the impact which caring responsibilities can have on the chances of the young people involved. I would thoroughly recommend “Hidden from View” an excellent report produced in May 2013 by the Childrens’ Society which uses the rich data from the Longitudinal Survey of Young People in England (LSYPE) to cast a spotlight on what is happening.
The findings are stark. While “caring responsibilities” cover a wide range of different circumstance 1 in 12 of young carers are caring for more than 15 each week. 1 in 20 are missing school because of their caring role. Young carers are often living in homes of multiple disadvantage with the average income of families with a young carers £5000 less than those without. Finally and most tellingly caring can have a dramatic impact on educational achievement with young carers, on average, achieving GCSE results 9 grades lower than their peers.
The third shock relates to how little we are still doing to address this issue whether to identify young carers in the first place or provide the right level of support to them or, just as importantly, to the person they are caring for, to ensure that caring responsibilities do not become an intolerable or detrimental burden. My sense is that, in recent years, the benefits of a growing recognition of and interest in this issue has probably been offset by the impact of the enormous financial challenges which social services and other agencies have had to face as a result of austerity. There are beacons of good practice and some of the examples of these, whether in Leeds or Camden and Islington were part of what made last week’s event so inspiring.
What, in addition to pressure on resources, makes this issue challenging is the need for genuine multi-agency working in this area. There are two levels to this. The first relates to professional behaviour. We can no longer afford clinicians or educationalists who address problems in one-dimensional terms. Patients have families and health and social care workers need to know about them if they are to understand the best strategies for care and treatment. Pupils also have families and teachers (and Secretaries of State for Education) need to understand that learning does not happen in a vacuum. The second level of course relates to budgets and to need to ensure money can be spent across organisational boundaries in the way which best deliver improved outcomes for individuals. So what about spending some of the pupil premium on improved support for young carers?
In one area the discussion was able to celebrate some important progress. As a result of some great campaigning work by the Childrens’ Society, the Carers Trust and many other organisations the Government has committed to some important strengthening of the law in respect of the rights of young carers, amending the Children and Families Bill to give all carers under the age of 18 the right to an assessment. We have been there before with carers’ rights of course and assessments, without subsequent access to the help required to address the needs identified, are little help. Nonetheless this looks like an important step forward.
There is nothing new about young caring. In the past where the family was generally the only source of help it was not uncommon for young people to have to care for parents or siblings. In his novel “Our Mutual Friend” Dickens gives a powerful picture in the character of Jenny Wren of a Victorian young carer, herself disabled, dealing with the needs of an alcoholic father.
But in the 21st century we should do better. Young carers are first and foremost young people with the hopes and opportunities of life ahead of them. It is not right to let the burdens of inappropriate caring responsibilities stand in the way.
For an excellent inforgraphic on young carers:
Diversity of surname isn’t exactly a strength of the Welsh and it’s no surprise that two of its greatest poets are both called Thomas. Furthermore they were born within 18 months and 50 miles of each other. There of course, for the most part, the commonality ends.
The elder, R.S. Thomas, an introverted cleric who lived into the 21st century, the younger, Dylan Thomas, a hell raising celebrity whose life was tragically cut short in 1952 before he had even reached the age of 40.
Both warrant being considered great poets with reputations in both the land of their birth and beyond. Dylan Thomas, for me, is in the tradition of the medieval Welsh bards such as Dafydd ap Gwilym. He has a mastery of language and of the form of verse of which is worthy of the ancient bardic tradition and was, as well, a wonderful performer. His personal life bears some resemblance too with his drinking, his scrapes and love affairs. Dylan himself could have a character in a modern-day version of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem “Trafferth mewn Tafarn” (Trouble in the Pub).
R.S., by contrast, I think of as an inheritor of the tradition of Welsh ascetics, fierce figures such as St David, settled in their lonely Llan (or monastic cell), communing with nature as much as they did with their fellow-men. There are stories about R.S. but of a very different character to those about his fellow poet.
Of course both wrote in English but for both the Welsh language had some importance. Dylan Thomas, despite coming from a Welsh speaking family, did not speak the language himself. nonetheless his poetry appears to be influenced by the sounds and forms of the ancient traditions of Welsh poetry. R. S. Thomas learnt Welsh as an adult but to his own disappointment was, after a small attempt, never confident enough to express himself as a poet in Welsh although he did write prose works in the language. As poets the use of English as a medium has increased their appeal, given further resonance in Dylan Thomas’ case, by the fame he developed in life and death in America.
Both wrote about the countryside of Wales. “Fernhill”, Dylan Thomas’ beautiful poem about the family farm in rural Carmarthenshire where he spent childhood summers was something which R.S. Thomas admired and, indeed, felt he could have written himself.
Both wrote about their fellow countrymen. At times R.S. Thomas appears to be more interested in the ideal of the Welshman rather than in any of the flesh and blood examples of the species he encountered in his clerical duties. Iago Prytherch, the Welsh peasant he describes in an early poem sets the scene. He has a frustration with ambition of the modern Welsh describing them in one poem as
“A people…..quarrelling for crumbs under the table, or gnawing the bones of a dead culture.”
He is equally contemptuous of those “Bosworth blind” Welshman who have been tempted to leave Wales for the riches on offer on the other side of the Severn.
Dylan Thomas’ sharpest portraits of his countrymen of course come in “Under Milk Wood”. Although no lover of what he saw as the smugness and hypocrisy of chapel goers he is general more generous with the famous plea in the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ prayer
“We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst”
Both poets are, in my view, at their best in dealing with spiritual matters. In R.S. Thomas’ case that is perhaps no surprise but, despite a surface contempt for religion, Dylan Thomas is equally comfortable in describing issues of the soul and few can fail to be impressed with the metaphysical resonance of poems such as “And Death shall no dominion”, especially when read by Richard Burton.
Despite their differences and ambiguities both poets are definitely worth the celebration which has accompanied their centenary years and are both warrant being seen as some of the best poets of the 20th century. Despite writing in English both can been seen as very Welsh poets who, in their different ways celebrate the virtues and vices of that small land of “beirdd a chantorion” (singers and poets). So while it’s a fun subject for an evening’s discussion with Welsh friends I find it hard to choose my favourite Thomas.
A sad day. Best wishes to Michael and I hope this is sorted out quickly and his accounts are restored.
Originally posted on The Not So Big Society:
This morning I woke to the very surprising news that Mental Health Cop (also known as Inspector Michael Brown of the West Midlands Police) has closed down his blog, Twitter and Facebook page. I don’t know the reasons for this, and those who do know seem to be rather tight-lipped about it. I have noticed, however, that several other police tweeters have also closed their accounts.
I had the pleasure of meeting Michael at the Mind Media Awards 2012, where he won the Mark Hanson Award for Digital Media, and interviewed him afterwards. We’ve also conversed online many times, and what’s frequently struck me is how dedicated he is to promoting better understanding of the intersection between mental health and policing. Over time, I’ve come to the view that I was speaking not only with an outstanding police officer, but also a genuinely nice guy. He has certainly challenged my stereotypes of police officers, and has consistently behaved as a credit to the ideals of policing.
Michael has since gone on to win other awards. At the This Week in Mentalists Awards 2012 for mental health blogging, he picked up Best Mental Health Not Otherwise Specified blog. In the #Twentalhealthawards he was runner-up in the Informative category in 2012. Then in 2013 he won Professional Not Otherwise Specified and was a runner-up in the Informative and Helpful categories.
As humans we need stories. Over the last couple of weeks I have had the privilege of having a ring side seat for one of the most beautiful and powerful mental health stories in the last couple of years – that of #Findmike.
If you haven’t seen it, and luckily lots and lots of people have seen it, the story is about Jonny Benjamin, a young man with schizo-affective disorder, who in 2008, running away from hospital, was on the verge of jumping off Waterloo Bridge. A passer-by intervened, talked to him and helped the moment of despair to pass before police and others could arrive. More than that, the passer-by offered Jonny a crucial word of inspiration, the hope that there may be a way through mental illness and that not all was lost.
Five years or so later Rethink Mental Illness has been working with Jonny to find “Mike”, as he has remembered the man who helped him on that fateful day. Thanks to media coverage, and in particular the impact of social media, we did find him and, in fact, he’s called Neil. Jonny and Neil were reunited and if you can watch their interview without crying you are a harder man than me.
I have reflected on why the story is so powerful and on some of the wider points it makes as we work to bring mental health into the mainstream of public and private debate. There are three which stand out.
First is the value of talking. One of the hardest things to cope with mental ill health is the sense that, due to stigma and fear, it becomes a private torment. It is striking that, over the last 6 years or so of work on Time to Change, the core message of “It’s time to talk” has emerged as the epitome of our work in changing attitudes. It’s not something people find easy to do and yet my experience as the Chief Executive of a mental health charity has been that people are desperate to do so. Since I’ve done this job, I can think of countless social occasions, where having introduced my occupation and given people permission, people have, without prompting, shared their personal or family experiences.
A willingness to talk about mental health has a number of benefits. It offers comfort and support to those affected and a sense that mental health problems do not have to cut them off from the rest of society. Next it makes it easier to seek help. One of the powerful things which Jonny says about his experiences was how difficult it was, when he first started feeling paranoid and hearing voices, to talk about it. Talking about mental health normalises it as an issue and allows us it to give the democratic attention to it which it deserves.
Next Thursday, 6th February, there is a big opportunity to talk about mental health as Time to Change holds its first Time to Talk day where we hope to have more than a million conversations about mental health. Might even one of them be like the one between Jonny and Neil?
The second aspect of the story which is so heart-warming is the message of hope. There is no case for being glib or polyannaish about mental illness. It can and, sadly too often does, destroy lives but recovery, of varying degrees is possible. Neil shared that message of hope with Jonny and not only did it help him step down from the edge on that day 6 years ago it also helped him on a longer term journey to wrest back his life from the shadow of mental illness. Hope sets ambition and without ambition we are tempted to accept second best. It is a scandal that we accept such poor outcomes for so many people affected by mental health problems and the hope and belief that things can be different for people should drive our commitment as a society to do something about that.
The last message I take from Jonny and Neil’s story is a more general one. That is that the opportunity to do good and make a difference can exist in all sorts of situations. I am sure that, on that day in 2008, as he crossed Waterloo Bridge Neil was n’t expecting to do something of such significance as helping to save another person’s life. So often we can be absorbed in the issues of the moment and miss the subtle cues in our daily lives of where a smile, a kind word or spontaneous act of generosity can have a powerful impact on others.
I’ve been reading a lot of R.S. Thomas recently and in The Bright Field, one of the loveliest of his poems, he says:
“I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field
For a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
Of great price, the one field that had the treasure in it.”
The lovely story of Jonny and Neil which I have been alongside will encourage me, I hope, to think twice about walking past the pearl of great price, however it is disguised.
If you want to learn more about Jonny and Neil’s amazing reunion follow the link below:
If you want to see more about what’s happening on 6th February on #timetotalk day go the Time to Change website at www.time-to-change.org.uk
There is no prize for guessing the most important political moment of 2014. Unquestionably it will be the referendum on 18th September to decide whether the Scots wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. Whatever your view on the issue, it is a striking political achievement for Alex Salmond to have delivered the opportunity for this question it to be put to the vote. Despite the current state of the opinion polls, it is too early to guess the outcome.
As a Welshman, the Scottish Independence Referendum is an unsettling event. It’s like watching an older brother grow up and prepare to leave the nest while you are still stuck with the old folks at home. In their hearts many Welshman share their same yearning for independence but, in reality, it is unlikely that Wales will have the opportunity to secure it in the foreseeable future. However the prospect of the United Kingdom, without Scotland, is a disturbing one. I am, personally, a supporter of the Union but the Scots are a crucial part of what gives it its character and without them, and with talk of the possibility of leaving the European Union, the prospect of Wales as an appendage to an inward looking England is not attractive.
To understand the Independence vote it is necessary to look on three levels.
The first is the Tartan question – the emotional attachment of the Scots to their own identity and history. There is no doubting the strength of that feeling, much less diluted than in parts of Wales with significant levels of immigration from England. Compared to many other campaigns for independence in the last 100 years, the basis for Scottish independence is indisputable. In relative terms (1707) Scotland has recent history as an independent country (even if sharing a monarch), there is no dispute about the location of the frontier and it has range of independent institutions which would be fit for purpose in separate nation.
The second question is the analysis of whether Scots feel they will be better off, in the short or longer term, if they were to become independent. This is a much more open question. Scotland is big enough to be independent (I was fascinated to be reminded as a result of recent interest in Borgen that it’s population is much the same size as Denmark) and it still has some oil. More generally though, many will be doubtful that, without subsidies from London, Scotland will be poorer off. All of this appears further complicated by arguments of what currency Scotland would use and whether it would be allowed to join the European Union. It is worth remembering that Scotland, unlike Wales and Ireland, was not united with England through conquest but as a result of a failed colonial enterprise which left the country bankrupt.
The final question is that of the attraction of small nationhood and the ability to establish a national and international character which is different from that of the United Kingdom. For me that might be the most attractive aspect of independence which might even be worth some measure of short term economic sacrifice. To be a nation that didn’t have nuclear weapons on its soil, that didn’t think it had to intervene in every international conflict, that had a realistic sense of its own place in the world and was n’t besotted with the “special relationship”. To be nation, also, that took a different perspective on the balance between the collective and the individual and perhaps tried to forge a different relationship with international capitalism than England seems to want to do so. These, it seems to be me, to be genuine reasons to vote yes although of course they may be easier to dream and talk about than they are to implement in reality.
Like all democratic questions negative factors play as much a part in determining the outcome and, without doubt, antipathy towards the English, and in particular, the well-heeled southern English, will influence many Scottish voters. There is a real challenge for English politicians such as David Cameron in determining the tactics they should best follow in the Referendum campaign and much wisdom in picking a Scottish politician like Alastair Darling as the front man for the No campaign.
If I was to make a judgement the Scots will probably vote no but by a closer margin than the polls would currently suggest. The lesson however of the Referendum is not however to force the argument in favour of the Union as it currently exists but to use it as a spur to rethink, more widely, the model of politics in this country so that the Union going forward is something which, intrinsically, more Scots, more Welsh and indeed more English feel more comfortable in belonging to.
So Michael Gove has decided to enter the debate and argue that a diet of left wing propaganda and television satire such as Blackadder has corrupted our view of the just and patriotic nature of the First World War. It’s the sort of intervention which confirms some of my worst suspicions that the Government’s sponsorship of the centenary of the War will descend into an attempt generate a nostalgic patriotic feel good factor.
Like all proper history the story of the First World War is much more complex and opinion was even more divided then than it is now. This was not a simple conflict. There were good reasons, such as the violation of Belgian neutrality, to fight. For my grandfather and other of my relatives who took part in the war there was never any real doubt that they were doing the right thing, however they chose to justify it. As a nation, Britain stuck at the task and survived, relatively untouched by major social disturbance, a conflict which engendered revolution in Russia, and at its end Germany, a mutiny amongst serving troops (France) and mass desertions (Italy).
Better than any modern judgements the case for fighting is summed up in the words of the poet, Edward Thomas, a natural pacifist, who in the end decided to enlist and was killed at Arras in 1917.
“This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true: –
A kind of god he is, banging a gong.
But I have not to choose between the two,
Or between justice and injustice”
Men or shades of opinion and walks of life heard this call and enlisted. More than any other conflict in our history the First World War touched virtually every family in the land with more than 5 million men mobilised. Again, more than with any other conflict, the thoughts of those who participated are accessible through a wealth of contemporary accounts in prose or poetry.
The fundamental question asked by many contemporary participants is not about whether they are fighting a just war but whether any war can be called just when it inflicts the horrific carnage and suffering which those who served in the trenches and other theatres of war experienced. The nature of warfare in 1914 was totally misunderstood and Generals and politicians massively underestimated the cost, in human lives, of achieving political goals.
The Welsh poet Ellis Humphrey Evans (bardic name Hedd Wyn) posthumous winner, after being killed at the Battle of Passchendaele, of the black chair at the 1917 Eisteddfod summed up for me powerfully the way in which the War had totally brutalised the civilisation fighting it.
“ When he thinks God has gone away
Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death’s roar
It shadows the hovels of the poor”
Another strong reflection is the sense of the difference of view between those serving in the trenches and those at home, for whom patriotism came with less sacrifice. This feeling is summed up by Siegfried Sassoon in the Soldier’s Declaration he wrote in 1917.
“I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuation of agonies which they do not share, and which they do not have sufficient imagination to realise.”
Many other accounts describe how serving soldiers found it almost impossible to talk in real terms at home about what they had seen in the trenches.
Many participants also shared Edward Thomas’ ambivalent attitude to the enemy. At home there was a strong sense of outrage at German atrocities in Belgium, at the use of chemical weapons (soon copied by the British) at the consequences of unrestricted U boat warfare and the sinking of civilian and neutral shipping. In the trenches brutal hatred when individual life or the lives of comrades were put at risk is interspersed with moments of genuine empathy with those from the opposite side who are nonetheless living through the same hell on earth. The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a well-known story but there were many more such experiences.
So the question we need to ask about the Great War in 2014 is not whether it was just or a patriotic conflict but more fundamentally what role can violent conflict ever play in satisfactorily resolving the affairs of men. The greatest failing which can be placed at the doors of the politicians of a hundred years ago is not they started the Great War but that, once it had started and the scale of carnage and destruction were apparent, they made such limited efforts to stop it or to resolve the dispute in a way which made it less likely for future conflict to break out. The danger is that a just war leads to a just peace and we sadly know, in the case of the First World War where that led to.