Sunday, 26 April 2020

Mental health: complex problems require diversity

In one respect, I have missed my usual frequent drives round Surrey. I usually use this time to listen to a range of materials, some intellectual, some lightweight, occasionally music, to feed my brain with whatever the mood takes me. This gives me a buffer between work and home, space to wind up and wind down. It also gives me an opportunity to learn and be exposed to new ideas. One of my favourite sources of inspiration is Matthew Syed, who has written several excellent books.

Since lockdown, I have not managed to fit in my usual diet of ideas and growth mindset podcasts. Between giving the children quality time, trying to get a reasonable amount of exercise and being tired after long periods videoconferencing, my brain has had enough by the end of the day.

However, I realised that this is not serving me and on Saturday I chose to go on a solitary walk for my exercise and I carried on listening to the audiobook of Matthew Syed’s Rebel ideas. The book contains the best explanation of why and how diversity is important that I have come across. He does not start with the premise that diversity is good, indeed for simple problems he argues that diversity is often not good (the men’s 100 metre final in the Olympics being a good case in point). However complex problems require diversity of thought and that comes from diversity of culture and experience.  The best ideas, the best solutions, will come through a range of different people with different experiences working together.

This has direct translation into the work that Surrey Youth Focus is supporting around the re-procurement of Children’s Emotional Well being and Mental Health services in Surrey. If ever there was a complex problem, mental health is it. The mental well being of any one person is a result of a complex mix of upbringing, culture, societal influences, life experiences, social interactions and more. 

At Surrey Youth Focus, we have long been believed that young people who are struggling would benefit hugely from more social solutions, many led by the third sector. (Note: I deliberately don’t use the term “services” because services tends to imply a narrow range of professional led work such as counselling, whereas solutions are much wider – peer support, whole school approaches, social movements, encouraging participation in arts and sports, etc).

However, it has gradually become clearer to me the importance of joint creativity around the future use of the money spent on mental health. We will get the best results if we work with a much more diverse group with different perspectives on emotional health understand the societal root of the issues and to generate new solutions. Young people, parents, commissioners, teachers, school nurses, psychiatrists, police, social workers and of course the third sector…to name just a few.

Together, we are so much stronger. But we need to find a way to throw off the baggage of the past - the silos, the overstrong faith in medical solutions, doing "to" young people rather than with them. We need to start with a clean sheet of paper and be creative together, painting a brand new vision of how to create a culture in our schools, our communities, our charities and our medical providers that enable every child and young person to thrive. The signs of change are afoot. There are some very strong cross-sector relationships being built, that will, I hope, lead to a very different way of serving our young people. 

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Hidden Talent

I was invited to sit on a panel and do a short talk at Surrey County Council’s We are Surrey event last week, which was aimed at companies wanting to do “social value” in the course of their work – or to put it simply, to do good. The picture shows me with Bob Pickles of Canon and the other panel members. 

Here’s the gist of my talk.  Many employers in Surrey are finding it hard to recruit and are looking for new avenues to find talented staff.  If this is you, here’s some suggestions you may not have thought of.

Have you heard of Sabrina Hatten Cohen who has just been made chief fire officer at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service? According to the Guardian, she is the youngest Chief Fire Officer in the country, aged 36, and one of only six female Chief Fire Officers. She also has a PhD in behavioural neuroscience and is writing a book.

You may be wondering what she has to do with the title, Hidden Talent? Age 15, she was homeless. She lived on the streets for some considerable time, selling the Big Issue and going to school. These experiences have almost certainly helped build her character – to help her become resilient and determined – characteristics that employers undoubtably value.

So, if you are looking for new employees, may I suggest that you may like to seek out Hidden Talent – young people who maybe do not fit the traditional mould but who nevertheless could make you very good employees. Others potential new employees that you may like to consider:
  • People with Learning Disabilities and Difficulties have a range of talents and their disability does not mean that they person cannot be a very useful employee, although in some cases you may need to make some adjustments. Some very much like repetitive jobs and could be perfect for a role that you find hard to fill long-term. Per the stereotype, some with high functioning autism are brilliant with numbers or at testing software.
  • I know of a blind person who has been working as an administrator for ten years for a multinational in Surrey. She is a valuable employee and they particularly value her loyalty.
  • Have you been to have your keys cut at Timpsons recently? They are very successful retail chain around the Country. They employ 1,200 ex-offenders and say that have a high retention rate of these staff. Ex-offenders again are another group that have lots of skills, often they just need to be given the opportunity to use them in a law-abiding way.
  • The final group that I want to mention is care leavers. Young people who have had a difficult start in life, perhaps suffered a bereavement or domestic abuse which means they have had to leave their homes. I often meet care leavers through work and my impression always is that they are amazingly resourceful, wise beyond their years. They have had to duck and dive and adapt to survive some difficult situations and these are skills which are very transferable to the workplace. 
So when you next walk past a homeless person I hope that the first thought that pops into your head is Hidden Talent. When you next drive past a prison, Hidden Talent. When you see a person with a disability, you think Hidden Talent and when you hear that a person has been in care, Hidden Talent. They could be the person that your organisation really needs.

My lovely colleague, Paula Neal, at Surrey County Council is looking for employers to interview about Hidden Talent to help generate ideas and solutions to enhance opportunities for employing Hidden Talent by Surrey businesses. Please contact Paula if you would like to take part.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

A mental health epidemic?

I am often asked what I think is causing the current high level of mental health issues in our teenagers and is the current “epidemic” real or manufactured by the media and society. I think it’s a mixture of both.

On the one hand, I think that today’s teenagers are facing a wealth of challenges that previous generations haven’t faced. On the other hand, as parents we somehow feel it’s our responsibility to make our kids happy all the time and take away all their pain. It’s not and we can’t; it’s an impossible task and we should give up trying. Having challenges and difficulties is a normal part of growing up and they will only emerge as a mature adult once they have learnt to navigate life.

Here are some beliefs that I think we need to foster in our kids to combat some of the challenges that society is throwing at them:

1) Emotions are a normal part of being human. You will sometimes feel sad, angry, lonely, frustrated, etc. This is normal, it doesn’t mean you need have a mental illness. However, it might mean that you benefit from the support of another human being - a friend, a parent, a neighbour, maybe sometimes a professional such as a teacher or a counsellor. Or maybe you need to nurture yourself, do your favourite thing such as listening to music or playing sport. 

2) Life doesn’t always give you what you want when you want it. Being used to waiting - saving up for that new bit of kit, waiting until tomorrow to speak to your friend, watching that video after you’ve done your homework, will massively help you to have the patience that you will need to get through life.

3) Being rich and famous doesn’t make you happy. In fact, there’s masses of evidence that it does the opposite. Just think of all the famous people who have talked about their mental health problems or taken an overdose. Those who are truly most content know that the most important thing is what goes on in your head. Do you say nice things to yourself? Or is there an inner critic constantly eating away at you. Do you seek out genuine friends (however geeky they are) or do you hang out with the “cool” crowd in the belief that it makes you a better person.

4) Having a “perfect” body never made anyone happy either. And the most attractive trait is an authentic smile on your face, radiating from being comfortable in your own skin.

I know that list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a start. So how am I doing on these in my own parenting? Not too bad on some of them, but I’m not sure that I’ve found effective ways to teach the delayed gratification idea yet….any tips anyone?

Monday, 1 July 2019

Crazy about the kid

·       Why are so many young people being impacted badly by society at this point in our history when we are more advanced, healthier and wealthier than ever?
·       What are the deep rooted causes as to why children get left behind? Why do some people manage to overcome a difficult start to reach their full potential, living relatively happy, fulfilled lives? Why do other people sink under the weight of their problems, failing to fulfil their potential – living a life of poor coping strategies such as taking drugs and being violent or exploited?
·        How do we break the generational cycles of sexual exploitation, domestic violence, criminal exploitation, poor mental health, substance/alcohol abuse?

Chris Hickford (CEO of Eikon) and I were pondering these issues, so we invited a small, group of people with diverse experience and big brains to explore these issues with us. We call this our "unofficial think tank." Thank you ever so much to the kind, thoughtful, intelligent people involved:

Steve Wyler and Caroline Slocock
  • Caroline Slocock – Better Way Network
  • Steve Wyler – Better Way Network
  • Jon Hetherington – More House School, Frensham
  • David Gumbrell - The Resilience Project
  • Jon Savell – Surrey Police
  • Trudy Mills - Children and Family Health Surrey
  • Dave Hill – Surrey County Council
  • Chris Hickford – The Eikon Charity
  • Cate Newnes-Smith – Surrey Youth Focus
  • Joe Crome – Community Foundation for Surrey
  • Sharon Ward

As a result, the group came up with a DRAFT set of principles for professionals and volunteers that we believe could make the difference to all children and young people and provide them the very best opportunity to succeed in life. We are just starting to tell the world about the principles... 


Being crazy about the kid

We all need to be ‘crazy about the kid’. Every professional needs to focus on human connection with a child, regardless of their background or circumstances, with patience and passion to achieve the very best for all children and young people.

Every child/young person needs a consistent relationship with at least one adult they trust.

Many young people feel lost and without direction, they don’t believe that they have anyone to turn to. Building trust and confidence takes time and a persistent and consistent approach. Often we hear stories of ever changing so-called ‘trusted adults’ in a child/young person’s life. How can we expect any form of ‘trust’ to be built when that person changes frequently and relationships have to start all over again. We need to enable professionals and volunteers working with children and young people to have the time and resources to provide stability and earn the child/young person’s trust.

Every child needs to be able to tell their story and learn to hope.

Many children experience trauma or loss. Others have a deeply unpleasant daily lived experience. Those children who have a clear story about what has happened to them are more likely to have develop healthy relationships going forward and hence to flourish. Children and young people need to know why they are where they are and to understand that they have choices and the potential to experience a happier life; connection with their peers can often help with this immeasurably. We all need to encourage young people to tell their story, to listen, believe and help the young person to make the changes that they need to make and to develop a sense of hope about their future. 

Every child needs a sense of belonging and encouragement to shine.

Children and young people need to have a group of friends, a club, association or school, which they look forward to going to. Where they can be themselves. Where they feel people have an interest in their welfare and they can ‘shine’. We all need to find ways to build on the strengths of each child, not just those who fit into the traditional mainstream educational systems and exams that are prevalent in our society, and help them to shine.

We all need to believe in the child or young person and what they can achieve.

Believing in yourself because others have believed in you is the recipe for success. Professionals need to have faith in young people, to help them explore their individuality and learn the tools and belief that they can do what they set their minds to, with the power to change their world.

What do you think? Do these make sense? How can we make these ideas become reality for every child and young person across Surrey? If you are a professional or volunteer working with children and young people in Surrey, please let us know what you think. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

The Community Paradigm

As many people have commented, we cannot afford to keep salami slicing the funding for services to people in Surrey. And despite the ongoing passion and commitment of professionals across Surrey, many of the problems that our children face – domestic abuse, mental ill-health, substance abuse and more – are not going away.

There is increasing evidence across the country that radically different models of engagement are proving popular. These models, put much more of the power and responsibility in the hands of communities and the charities that serve them. These bring huge benefits, they serve our citizens better, with a holistic, preventative agenda, not a crisis response, they make best use of community asset and they encourage individual responsibility.

Across Surrey, people are daring to think very differently, as was demonstrated at the Surrey 2030 Vision event yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about projects from around the country yesterday, particularly from Adam Lent of the the New Local Government Network. I thoroughly recommend reading their document:

However, this type of change cannot be driven from the top. There are many thriving community projects and charities across Surrey, which bring huge benefits to Children, Young People and Families (CYPF), many of which the public sector is not funding or only partially funding. Many of these have a very holistic view of people’s lives and do great preventative and supportive work which is hugely valuable to individuals and to society at large – making a huge difference to wellbeing.

For me, these are the starting point for an engine for change. I believe that there is the potential to achieve far more for our communities by working with our communities - bringing people and professionals with energy, enthusiasm and skills together to share, learn and work in a more coordinated way. To improve the lives of the most vulnerable, despite shrinking public sector budgets, there is a need for all sectors of society to work together. We need to achieve a cultural shift where people needing help play a greater role in their journey – in decision making at a personal and community level, in helping to support their peers and more.

This will require change on all sides, both within commissioners and within the third sector. In fact, I have heard the opinion expressed that actually the third sector needs to change more than the commissioners for this to work. Looks like we (Surrey Youth Focus) will have our work cut out for us to help facilitate this change. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Solving the mental health crisis

The crisis that we have with children and young people’s mental health is not going to be solved in consulting rooms and clinical settings across our county. The crisis may be contained by professionals in clinical settings, but it is not going to be solved there. 

It will be solved in communities – in schools, in families, in friendship groups, in youth clubs, in charities. It will be solved by changes in attitudes, in cultures, in beliefs and behaviours – not just in the young people themselves, but in their parents, their teachers, their friends and their medical staff. It will be solved by young people having access to and making use of healthy coping strategies – exercise, peer support, long-term bond with a trusted adult, mindfulness - and avoiding unhealthy coping strategies – substance abuse, violence, abusive relationships, eating unhealthily. 

Until we – councils, health services, parents, police, schools, charities – work truly in partnership with young people to understand their lives and address the underlying causes together, the situation will only get worse. 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Young people with learning disabilities collaboration 

Surrey Youth Focus is delighted to welcome Sally Stubbings to the team, Sally will be working on the Hidden Talent project. This project aims to make it easier for young people with Learning Disabilities and other Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) across Surrey to find work experience, work placements and ultimately jobs. To sign up to the Hidden Talent bulletin please - click here.  For more information please email

More about the project

Given the high employment rate in Surrey, do you find it hard to recruit and retain suitable employees? If so, the good news is that there are “hidden” pools of talent that many employers are not tapping into – young people with learning disabilities. Many young people with learning disabilities are longing to work and make great employees if given the chance. 
There are many wonderful young people who happen to have learning disabilities leaving schools and colleges across Surrey who have the capabilities to do a wide range of jobs. Some are highly capable of doing challenging financial or technical jobs, as long as employers make adjustment for their social skills or other learning disability. Others may excel at doing highly repetitive jobs that others do not enjoy.
Employers benefit from employing young people with learning disabilities by gaining new talent and having a more diverse workforce which can bring useful insights to their organization’s strategy, products and services. It also gives employers an opportunity to demonstrate that they are compassionate and forward looking to their employees, customers and local community, thus helping both customer and employee retention. 
It’s true that some may need more initial support than other employees, but this can often be funded by the state and many employers have achieved a long term return on investment with a hard working, long-serving employee. 
We are aiming to create a win-win situation where employers get access to new pools of employees and some great young people get the work opportunities that they long for. For this to work, there needs to be new paths to employment for these young people, since the traditional recruitment practices typically act as barriers, not enablers. We believe that the best way to do this may be to create an email bulletin which contains requests made by charities/colleges for opportunities such as work placements for young people. If the work placements are successful, these young people might become valuable employees. We are currently doing a survey to find out employers’ attitudes to our ideas.
This project is being led by Surrey Youth Focus in consortium with an impressive list of organisations including Surrey Chambers of Commerce, Surrey County Council, employers, charities and schools & colleges across Surrey.