Working for the NHS – a very current reminder

Earlier today I was feeling grumpy and a little sorry for myself and I posted the following on an app called Whisper.

For those of you not familiar with this app you basically communicate through these meme type photos, but there is a chat facility if you want to private message. Generally I avoid private messages because, as you might expect, they usually end with some kind of sexual advance. However, this post had some rather lovely, supportive responses so I  gave them a bit of time.

I’d like to share one in particular (my messages are in the purple boxes).

    

I’m proud of myself for walking away and not asking what a proper university is (as opposed to the magical fairy ones the rest of us attend I suppose).

I’m not going to lie, I was a little taken aback by how quickly this escalated from a sympathetic chat about chronic fatigue. It brought me up slightly short, mostly because of how vehement this person’s feelings on the NHS are.

I don’t want to deconstruct the arguments – you’re quite capable of doing that yourselves. I’m posting this as a reminder of the battles we are facing if we want to protect our NHS and other public services. This man has health issues that would benefit hugely from a strengthened NHS yet this is still his attitude, and there are many people who feel the same way.

If we want to keep our public services these are the attitudes we have to change, these are the people we need to convince.

There’s a lot of work to do.

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Theatre and long-term mental health issues

The relationship between mental health and creativity is a strong and well established one. Just do a quick Internet search and thousands of articles come up so it would be easy to assume that the Arts would be tolerant and supportive of those of us with long-term mental health issues. Unfortunately I, like many others, have found that to be sadly untrue. At best we are often required to hide our needs, or our creativity is reduced to being nothing more than a therapy that other people don’t need to engage with.

A performer is expected to seem in control, present, confident and open at all times. Signs of nerves or hesitation are often the difference between getting a job and not, yet there are many facets of mental health issues that could manifest in this way – social anxiety looking like nerves or depression looking like a lack of interest or care. As an experienced performer I know categorically that these things can be worked around, even used, to generate really great performances. I also know how often that opportunity is missed.

There are a number of elements that create this situation:

  • A saturated industry where the smallest negative can be used as an excuse not to use people.
  • A general resistance to discussing mental health that’s still very prevalent throughout society (improving but still very present).
  • An industry constantly in flux with people moving around all the time, making establishing assistance challenging.
  • Time pressures on people creating work including directors, producers, casting directors etc. meaning that making time allowances can be difficult.

And there’s a further complication: long-term mental health issues rarely come on their own. A lot of people will develop more than one issue (or comorbidity) and there is an increased risk of physical problems when mental health issues are prolonged. These aren’t necessarily the obvious, stress related ones such as IBS or high blood pressure – one of the factors considered in my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis was my history of depression. Often we get to the point where we have to stop thinking about the diagnosed condition and deal day-to-day with the current collection of symptoms.

Put this together and you have quite a complex, fluctuating set of problems to deal with.

Recently I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about how this can be tackled so people with long-term mental health issues are more included both as audience and performer in theatres. For all the reasons above it’s a tough challenge, but if any industry is up for a tough challenge it’s this one! I’m starting to think that first and foremost we need to start understanding and respecting the need for emotional safety in order for someone with this kind of background to function.

For a performer a traditional audition can be brutal: we are expected to rapidly access emotions with people who are often strangers in close proximity who are judging you in a way that is unlike any other performance experience. This is fairly difficult for someone without this kind of issue but can be almost impossible for someone with it. If I use myself as an example – one of my symptoms is dissociation (emotionally disconnecting) when I feel overloaded, stressed or threatened. It’s automatic and there is little or nothing I can do to prevent it happening. In an audition context even a minor dissociation is going to stop me doing my best work but the structure is exactly the kind of thing that will trigger it. What do I do? Tell the audition panel? They are time pressured and need to find a person who they can quickly see will be able to do the job. Me asking to have a five-minute chat with them to help is hardly going to go down well.

And an audience experience can be just as problematic. A lot of individuals find large groups of people overwhelming or even frightening and their only option when that happens is to leave, meaning they are denied the experience all together. I have a dear friend with complex issues who loves to see things but has often reached the door and had to turn around and come away.

All this might sound pretty bleak but there are some good things going on. For performers the use of workshop auditions can be really useful, as they include chances to get to know the people around you before having to be vulnerable. They also have the emphasis on seeing what a person can do and exploring that rather than getting a person to stand and do it ‘right’. I suspect there are also a whole lot of possibilities for creatives employing performers to meet and get to know people outside an audition so a degree of trust can be built before the situation arises. For audiences, theatres are increasingly introducing relaxed performances where people can fidget or step out without there being a problem (incidentally, these can be brilliant for mothers with babies too).

It’s by no means hopeless but there is a lot of work to do if people like myself, managing long-term mental health issues, are fully embraced as a valuable part of the theatre and wider Arts community.

OK, let’s get back on this.

I’ve been quiet for a while. Very quiet. Largely because I, like so many others, have spent the last few months with my head in my hands trying desperately to keep nausea under control whenever I catch a glimpse of the news.

It’s been brutal.

And so far 2017 isn’t shaping up all that much better is it? The First terrorist attack happening in Turkey before most of us had even finished generating our hangovers, Trump about to become President for real, Brexit hanging over everything like the stench of rotting food and the NHS needing Red Cross assistance to function.

It’s quite difficult to write about, well, pretty much anything without concluding that we’re basically screwed.

So what do you do when you look out and see nothing but problems coming? Here are some suggestions:

  • Just stop reading the news. This option gets thrown my way fairly regularly. Definitely has it’s upsides but clashes with the notion that ignoring important things is just refusing to take responsibility for your part in them. You can’t change things you don’t know about.
  • Focus on the good things. Always a great idea. The problem at the moment is finding the good things…
  • Recognise the impermanence – this too shall pass. But possibly not in my lifetime…

Yeah, this isn’t really helping is it?

I honestly don’t have any answers or even suggestions on this one. As far as I can tell the human race is rapidly losing it’s collective marbles and I’m pretty convinced things are going to get worse before they get better. The decision now is whether to passively take what’s happening and hope for the best or to actively try to limit the damage.

I’m not a very passive person.

Sorry, the Gestapo Head is right.

logoweb

Back when I was at university or school if you’d asked me my feelings on uniforms I probably would have blown a raspberry at you, and as an adult I generally do my best to avoid them. With that in mind it may come as a surprise when I say that I completely agree with the strict stance taken by Matthew Tate, the ‘Gestapo Headmaster‘ of Hartsdown Academy in Margate.

A few  years back I did some work in a state all-girls school run by a very strict headmistress. All the girls were in skirts, no make-up, hair bobbles to match their uniform etc. I was absolutely dreading it… right until I walked in and began to realise what the strictness was doing for the students.

Here are some of the things that changed my mind:

  1. It made the students feel attended to. Of course pupils whinge about being made to wear certain clothes. Heck, most of us do! But if you notice what they’re wearing it means you’re paying attention to them and showing you care about what they’re doing. You want them to look good and be included. You consider them important and worth the effort of arguing with. So much of working with troubled children comes down to giving them positive attention and building their self-worth. I had never realised how useful a uniform could be in doing that.
  2. It provides a healthy form of rebellion. Children and teenagers are forging their own identities and they will inevitably rebel against authority. By focussing that rebellion on a uniform and other ‘disciplines’ you keep it away from rebellions that can be much more detrimental to the student and those around them – if you’re fighting about their hair bobbles your less likely to need to fight about them punching the kid next to them.
  3. It gives them a safe way of getting one up on the teachers. This leads on from the rebellion issue. Young people need to feel empowered just like anyone else. The school environment can be extremely disempowering for a lot of students, making them feel like just one name on a list. Being able to take back some control and say ‘no’ can be really important. Saying no to tucking a shirt in is better than saying no to putting a cigarette out or to attending at all.
  4. It can be used to really build confidence and possibilities. For example, girls shouldn’t wear make-up because they’re beautiful young women and we want to see their faces, not paint. Pupils need to wear blazers to get used to how suits feel for when they’re working as barristers or CEOs or for when they’re presenting their amazing invention to a room full of potential investors. Again, many students have very low self-esteem. Most of the ‘trouble makers’  I dealt with considered themselves stupid and would never have believed they could achieve anything. Using a uniform/dress-code as a tool like this can really help support them and open a dialogue to introduce possibilities they had ruled out.
  5. It gives boundaries. Children and young people are increasingly sexualised  and uniforms can be a really good way of countering that. No, it doesn’t prevent it or change what happens outside of school, but it can help create a safe space for the students to be kids without the pressure of getting a look right. That is taken out of their hands. For the students who are more mature this kind of restriction may be frustrating but does little lasting damage. However, for those who need such a safe space it can be invaluable. The other important boundary is between teacher and pupil. Yes, the teachers can wear make-up because they’re adults and because their roles are different, not more or less important, but different.

I could go on.

After a short time of seeing how well these kind of discipline rules could work I was a total convert. It takes effort to establish and maintain but it is so, so worth it.

And there is no need to hide what’s going on from the students. I would happily discuss the rules with the students and listen to their dislikes – they should absolutely have a voice in the way they have to spend their days. But I would always be able to give them positive reasons for the uniforms and as far as I can remember I never had a student disagree in the end.

So I support Mr. Tate. I wish him and his school the best of luck. It’s a hard slog but he’s setting those children up far better than many other teachers would even attempt to. Well done and keep up the good work!

The Labour Leadership Election: or What is democracy?

Last September I blogged about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and how excited I was for the change it represented. Something I didn’t say was that, at the time, I wasn’t a member of the Labour Party. Whilst I have had a politically aware upbringing (just now my mother is Chief Whip for Lincolnshire County Council) I had always felt slightly uncomfortable with party politics. I never really saw myself represented and felt like I would be compromising if I had to support my party rather than the individuals I believed in. On Corbyn’s election I was very tempted to join Labour but wanted to wait and see if he would be got rid of. After Brexit however, I no longer felt that it was acceptable to participate in this way. I felt that it was necessary to join a national body to prevent the coming changes sliding into abusive, money grabbing policies so I joined the Labour Party.

And then the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) decided to implode.

Since Brexit the Labour Party has been in absolute disarray. I have looked at the news daily with an increasing sinking feeling in my stomach as I watch the party that I committed to undermine the changes I was so excited for. I have been dismissed as a Corbynista (whatever the hell that is) or an unwitting Trot and every attempt has been made to disenfranchise me. Why? Because they don’t like Corbyn and I do.

Now, let’s just think this through a minute. Corbyn won a huge victory to become leader (but remember, he’s unelectable) and from the word go there were people from the Labour Party complaining and saying he shouldn’t stay. How is that good politics? If watching American elections over the last few decades has taught us anything it should be this: a popular leader can be worked with, even when they’re pretty appalling, as long as those around them close ranks and work together. George W. Bush is a perfect example of this (I would say Trump but I have no idea how he’s got this far).

Why, why, why didn’t the PLP get behind Corbyn? Not a strong leader? That’s fine, we have a strong team. Not charismatic? No problem, his colleagues are.

Fast forward to the referendum: instead of using the collapse of the Conservative leadership to push a popular leader forward the PLP use the situation for a vote of no confidence, but one that came with NO VIABLE ALTERNATIVE CANDIDATE.

Again, think it through. If you’re going to out a massively popular leader surely the first thing you do is figure out who you’re going to put in their place. Surely?!?

But this was never about thinking it through or doing the right thing, it was simply about getting rid of Corbyn. There is no doubt in my mind that there have been uncalled for, systematic attacks on his leadership from all sides since the word go*. He represents a kind of politics the centre/right of the Labour Party have worked hard to kill. Hell, this is why I didn’t vote for them for a long time – they were more right wing than the Lib Dems! Corbyn is a genuine Socialist, a conviction politician quite unlike the ‘Statesmen’ we’ve been subjected to for decades and there is a whole swathe of the country that have been desperate for a representative like this. Yet we are being put through a Labour Leadership Election.

But let’s be clear, this election is not about a leader, it’s about what we believe democracy is.

  • Is democracy voting for representatives who then rule us, lead us or work for us?
  • Is the job of a representative to help us be heard or to tell us what we need because they know better?
  • Should a minority be able to overrule a majority simply because they don’t like the choice?
  • Should money be allowed to disenfranchise voters?
  • Should our representatives be allowed to change the rules depending on what suits them?
  • Should richer members have a louder voice because they can pay for expensive lawyers?

As far as I’m concerned Owen Smith, the people who put him there and those supporting him are completely missing the point. There are hundreds of thousands of us who are tired of the ‘Statesmen’ you want us to vote for, your shiny, well rehearsed career politicians with business ties and a book deal waiting. They have led us into horrific conflicts costing thousands of lives, they have paved the way for the austerity measures so many of us are now suffering under, they have ‘relationships’ with the unscrupulous media powers who shamelessly misinform the population and now they are disenfranchising their own members to get their own way.

Then they ask us to trust them.

At this stage I genuinely don’t care what Corbyn or Smith have to say. It’s no longer about them. This is a much bigger issue than who should or shouldn’t lose to the Conservatives in the next election (at this rate we’ll be lucky if there’s a party to stand in the next election). This is about us demanding a better standard of politics, one that the population can rely on. This is about us having faith that the people we vote into power are there for us not for themselves.

The Labour Leadership Election is not about a leader, it is about what we believe democracy is. I know what I think, now I have to wait to see if I’ll be allowed to vote.

 

* This article written by Bart Cammaerts, an Associate Professor and PhD Director at the London School of Economics and Political Science is just one piece that expresses similar concerns: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-media-bias-labour-mainstream-press-lse-study-misrepresentation-we-cant-ignore-bias-a7144381.html

Brexit won. What now?

Brexit won.

Shit.

Here’s where I was before the vote:
I was never 100% pro-EU. I take issue with the actions around Greece and the banking crisis leaving me with concerns about whether the EU is a global power focussing on people or corporations. As a result I listened long and hard to both sides, right up until the morning of the election. I had enough people I respect giving articulate arguments on both sides that I had to question everything (which, incidentally, is not a nice feeling). I left it later in the day to cast my vote just to be 100% sure nothing would change my mind.
It didn’t and I voted remain.

What do we do now, the millions of us who concluded we would be better to stay?

Well, after we have sobered up from the commiseration drinking that’s going to be happening this weekend, we need to be clear that it is now more important than ever that we fight for our values. This referendum has been toxic: the media coverage has been manipulative, misleading and hate-filled; our politicians have been deceitful and spiteful; the arguments have been cruel and divisive. All-in-all it has shown us just how unpleasant people can be, right down to the murder of a public figure.

We absolutely cannot allow the coming changes to be led by fear and hate.

We have to remind ourselves that there were always progressive, positive reasons for leaving the EU. Whatever the media might have made us feel there have always been intelligent and informed people in favour of leaving. There’s also a long way to go before it actually happens. As one friend has already pointed out to me a referendum isn’t legally binding and with such a split it is going to be a fraught process with a lot of compromises along the way. Plus, we have to see how the public reacts as the policies and promises they have been fed are put to the test.

But regardless, we need to focus on the constructive things we can do: reinforce our concept of democracy, the notion that it’s vital leaders be accountable and to ensure that people come first over everything else, particularly big business; strengthen our unions, put energy into bringing people together and building support for everyone; nurture a culture of knowledge and thought to counter tendencies towards knee-jerk reactions and fear.

No-one’s sure what’s coming next, not for the UK, the EU or the world as a whole, we just know that this is big. We have to make ourselves big enough to influence it.

Nope. Never. No. NOT EVER.

I’m currently sitting at my kitchen table and trying to work. As always there are constant pop-ups and pings coming from my phone and right now I just can’t ignore them. I can’t ignore them because today they are making me really angry.

In the early hours of Sunday 12th June 2016 a gunman went into a bar in Florida, USA and murdered 49 people and injured a further 53 before being shot by police. He chose the bar because it was an LGBT venue and his hatred of the world had focused on them.

This is horrific, utterly vile, but his actions are not what’s making me angry.

One of my earliest memories of engaging with the news comes from February 1993 when two boys around my age took a toddler, tortured and killed him. His name was Jamie Bulger and the images from the news have always stayed with me, but probably not for the reasons you would think.

When I saw that news, even at 9 years of age, I knew that what they had done was completely wrong, terrible, but totally abnormal. These were not the normal boys I sat in class with, the boys I sat in class with (horrible though many of them undoubtedly were) would never, could never do this. So it wasn’t the boys who did this that scared me – even at 9 I knew there was something wrong with them, and whilst things being wrong can be horrible, you don’t actually come across it that often.

What scared me was what the news was calling normal.

It was normal for grown men to throw themselves at the vans carrying these two abnormal children and it was normal for the fury felt by people, most of whom did not know the child, to lead to baying for blood. Even at 9 years old the thought that this was normal scared me far more than whatever horrors had happened. I knew I lived in a world where bad things could happen but even then I did not want to live in a world where cruelty and violence like that was considered normal.

Now, 23 years later, I’m looking at the ‘normal’ reactions to the violence in Florida and it angers and sickens me. We have a presidential candidate of the world’s biggest power using this as an excuse to target an entire religious group for discrimination, people quite happily sharing vile jokes about shooting gays on all sorts of platforms and we have news channels trying to play down the homophobic nature of the attack. It makes my blood boil to see people responding like this, but underlying it is the same fear I felt as a 9 year old.

It truly terrifies me that in the ‘civilised’ western world in the second decade of the 21st century there is anywhere that these ideas and attitudes are seen as even vaguely acceptable. There is no justification ever, under any circumstances, to walk into a room and arbitrarily murder people. None. It is utterly and completely wrong. I have a very vivid imagination and I still can’t come up with any situation in which this would be even acceptable let alone OK or right.

But it happens all the time. We know about this one because it’s big for America and here in the UK we like America so what hurts them hurts us right? But this happens around the world every day to thousands and thousands of people. We live in a world where enough people think it’s acceptable to commit this kind of act that we don’t even see most of them on our news.

That, that is what makes me angry.

To change this, to prevent these things happening, it is not enough to tell each other how terrible it is, we have to change the ideas that underly it. We have to teach ourselves, our children and each other that some things are NEVER acceptable.

But what if… No.

But in a war… No.

But if my children… No.

NO NO NO NO NO.

If, by some hideous twist of fate, you found yourself in one of those situations you would be acting on instinct, not some considered moral position. If you have to think about it the answer is NO! The people who do these things always believe their reason is the exception, their belief is the one that makes it OK but it NEVER is. So no, there are no reasons.

Until the media and the population following it say loud and clear that it is NEVER OK to do these things my blood will always boil.