Christmas Star

My blog for the Chatsworth Road Advent Stars thing.

An advent star for when the sky clears and it’s an inky blackness. Lost in space, without a prayer, courage fades; the campaign fails, the cause has gone.

When hope is lost and you’re uncertain where to go.

Christmas recalls an improbable story of astrologers guided to a Palestinian baby in a country under military occupation. For those of faith, the story finds God in solidarity with humanity, in a stable, sharing the view with farmyard animals, and a teenage mum.

It’s a great tale.

Amongst many things, the legacy is a movement of all kinds of people living for justice, mercy and peace.

Another story last week, this time of east Londoners travelling to Calais. Taking food and clothing to refugees and asylum seekers searching for sanctuary on European soil, many from countries battered and bombed.

And those bearing gifts return speaking of extraordinary welcome, and astonishing hospitality.

Sitting with lives that un-expectantly burn bright, under a makeshift tarpaulin in the rain.

So, here’s to moments shared, that challenge and illuminate in wilderness days.

To flickers of grace and mercy extended to each other when we least expect it.

To flames of solidarity with the refugee and those on the margins, a commitment to justice and right living that take us beyond charity.

Here’s to some modest visions and great adventures this week. You never know where it might lead.

People Power

In 2012 patients and former patients set up the People’s Network, a group working to give voice to issues related to mental health services in Hackney. Recently I’ve been working with the group as they review the last few years, clocking all they’ve achieved. There is ambition for the next five years, work that ‘needs to be done’, which will need funding. It’s an impressive venture not least because users of mental health services in Hackney lead it. They know the reality.

“We’ve lost services. Things have gone. There wasn’t much there in the first place, that’s the truth. Now there’s not much left.”

I arrive at the group’s weekly drop in, as another member navigates the intercom and carefully ascends the stairs. We find the space and the bulky frame in front reaches his destination, collapsing into a sofa. The group assembles, distracted, chatty. I’m plied with tea and digestives as the conversation starts. I listen, typing notes as we go. The sofa stirs, its occupier now asleep. I’m buoyed by the welcome and friendliness.

“You can wake up and be confronted with an issue and that can make you feel suicidal. It’s help with money, budget with everyday life. I want help with education, and training and employment. Just advice about how to get on.”

It’s a lively unpredictable group defined and led by users of mental health services, all with experience of mental health ‘issues’. The ‘issues’ word is banded about a bit here, clumsy but necessary, papering over long stories, complex trauma and huge challenge. Despite contrasting appearances everyone in the group has or continues to face mental health issues. Amongst the banter and debate there are knowing looks. I’m hit by the profound solidarity.

“Changes have made me very anxious. No key worker anymore. I’m anxious. That’s not good anymore. I don’t have a mobile phone, so I show up here at the People’s Network. My GP is not there for me, that’s what they say. It’s help with the every day.”

Mental health need is high in Hackney compared with the rest of England. Income deprivation is high and linked to higher than average levels of mental health problems in the population. Locally there are significantly higher proportions of Black people with Serious Mental Illness, compared to White, Asian or other ethnic groups. Deprivation has a huge impact with research showing higher than average numbers of people claiming the old incapacity benefit for mental illness in Hackney. With huge need is the perfect storm of cuts to services alongside the impact of welfare reform and changes to housing benefit. In Hackney there is the rising cost of housing.

“We want to go to speak to someone who can help us and have someone to listen. That feels good. Even if you let it all pile up within you, all the anxiety and stuff, you explode. You end up stressed and you talk gibberish. You end up getting sectioned. Talking with someone one to one, and it just brings release. You’re available – we can talk. I want some time with you. We want empathy and friendship. It just helps.”

I listen to people talk freely about complex mental health need. Shortly, a well documented tension between clinical, medical responses and softer talk therapies surfaces. An uneasy balance is struck. A recognition that medication is necessary alongside ambition to break free, to find space for talking and recovery fuelled by the patient, seemingly frustrated by the professional. Nods of support and murmuring of encouragement.

“Professionals are not covering the final outcome, which is recovery – they are covering their tracks. It’s about on-going medication not recovery. They are not looking at the system. The stuff that gets us here – all we have to face and work through.”

One of the members has made everyone lunch and we finish up talking over food. Surprise at what’s been said and encouragement follow, alongside deeper reflection on the insights shared. Then we leave. Things to do back in the realities we’ve left behind. I listen. Some of the obstacles confronting group members feel impossible, instantly generating work for the People’s Network – which they aren’t funded to do. I leave inspired by the solidarity and a sense that the group is making all the difference.

“I get made homeless in April. My landlord wants me out… I got a possession order asking me to be out in March. I said, “You can’t do that!” I spoke to the landlord and he said he’d put it back till April, but that I’d have to be out because he’s selling the place. I have to be at Hackney Council. The landlord will send the bailiff round. I rang Family Mosaic they said there will have to have a referral from your psychiatrist. So I’ve got to arrange an appointment. I’m anxious, but I’m OK”.

People’s Network is supported by Social Action for Health