Friday, 25 July 2014

Volunteering while getting benefits

The title of this blog post is also the title of a UK government guide which can be downloaded from the internet here. Quite simply it lays down the rules around volunteering whilst on benefits:

"If you’re getting State benefits, you can be a volunteer and, in nearly all cases, your benefits will not be affected. However, there are some cases where your benefits can be affected, for example, if you get a subsistence allowance or if you’re doing what someone else would normally be paid for."

And yet people who are receiving benefits are sometimes made to feel – by society, by people they know, by workers at the Job Centres they attend - that if they are able to volunteer then of course, they should also be able to work.

Jan Rogers receives benefits and volunteers for the mental health charity Ponthafren Association at the organisation’s centre in Newtown. She is not in paid employment at this time. She wanted to share with a wider audience the value of volunteering to her.

Without going into detail of what, why and where, I will just say, when I first became unwell, I could see NO way out. Well, in fact, I did find a way out and that was to end “it”. To put a stop to the hassle and grief I was causing to my family.

Sometimes I think I functioned quite well in the sense that food was always on the table and the house and children were always clean, at least when they left the house. But I wasn’t living, it was existing - going through the motions. When my husband was in work I would quickly do housework and what I needed to do and then hide. Sometimes I would lie under the bed all day watching the clock so that I would be out in time to cook tea and pick the children up. This was harder when I had younger children so I used to draw the curtains and sit and interact with the children hoping that they would not pick up on how I was feeling. This worked for a few years but every time one of the children called me “Mum” I cringed.

One day Hell had just opened its doors. I went from a person who was out going and enjoyed life to almost becoming a recluse. Although I made sure the children and hubby were fed and looked after, I was sinking into a dark, dark world. I did not bathe or eat until I was so light headed I couldn’t function. My husband gave up his job and although he was amazing he was looking for answers to the complete change in a person, which to him had happened “moreorless overnight”.

I was regularly taken to hospital and sectioned and stays varied from one to three months in the early days. As time went on, with my husband’s and family’s support, and the help of the Community Mental Health Team, I was able to function slightly better, but each day was a struggle for us all. Sometimes I would leave the house and seem and feel okay, drop the children off at school but then, a dark cloud would surround me and I had no idea where I was or who I was. My husband would phone the police after looking, sometimes all night, and I would be back in hospital on a section.

I felt my life was over and although I was lucky in a sense that I had a great supporting family, this in one way was making me feel more guilty as I was letting them down and just causing more grief to the people that were at my side and holding me up. 

Jan in the garden at Ponthafren

All I kept thinking was why, why, why?

About six or seven years ago, I took my youngest sons to football practice. I was standing on my own, not really wanting to get into a conversation with people. There was a woman there, who I did not know, she seemed to be in charge of the football sessions. I remember the day well as it was windy, cold and raining, real football weather. The lady came across and introduced her self as Nicky Morris and explained that she was chair of the junior football club, Newtown Whitestars.

We got chatting and this was the first time I had really trusted anybody outside my family. I felt I could talk to her as if I had known her for a lifetime. Nicky went on to explain that she was Co-ordinator of Ponthafren Association , which was a registered charity for people with mental health problems. She suggested I pop in for a chat and see what Ponthafren had to offer for me. I was always very much into my sport, gym and running as well as a very keen gardener.

I went along to Ponthafren with my hubby and met up with Nicky and Jane and chatted. I said I would love to come along to the centre but needed a purpose. Nicky suggested volunteering for a couple of hours a week to go along with people to the gym. So, this is what I did. Mike was always outside at least half an hour before I was due to be picked up as he was very worried.

Over quite some time, I was volunteering more hours and even though some days I would not go in as I was feeling unwell, generally I felt a small sense of achievement. As time went on Mike was feeling more relaxed and able to take a step back. He too then became a volunteer at Pont. I think we sometimes forget about the person that has cared and carried someone with mental health illness for such a long time and almost expect them to pick up where they left off in a sense. This is not reality as when Mike gave up his job he gave up his “Life”, in the sense of friends, associates and a social life.

At Ponthafren I can be myself, I don’t have to pretend at all. If I want to smile I can, but at the same time if I don’t feel like smiling or putting on a face for people, then I don’t feel like I have to.

Some of the things I deal with every day and night:

  • Sense of worthlessness.
  • Scrounger to society/tax payers as I should be working.
  • Sense of letting my family and friends down.
  • Voices.
  • Hallucinations, to the degree of bathing in shorts and tee shirt and dressing inside a large robe that is zipped up the front, from my neck to the floor. 
  • Not sure if I’m having a conversation with real people or not.
Some of the things I feel and have partly gained by volunteering are:
  • Self worth.
  • Confidence.
  • Self-belief.
  • Passion for believing in my principles and beliefs and the fact that they do count.
  • Helping my family understand my “illness”.
  • Helping “ME” understand my “illness”.
  • Being “Who” I am, and most of the time thinking, “others will have to accept me as is”.
I have been nominated and won awards but although I am very grateful for being put forward and gaining these awards I personally (it has taken me years to accept praise and to be honest, deep down, I still cringe even though I smile) feel that these awards I accept are on behalf of every volunteer I know. This, I feel, is how I am able to accept them.

Why do I volunteer?

At the moment I don’t think I would be able to cope with employment. I’m not sure it would be fair on an employer or me. I have never and never will be happy with myself drawing benefits but volunteering goes some way for me to prove my worth to Government, Job Centre, tax payers. I have received, and continue to do so, so much help from Ponthafren – and this is one thing I can do to part pay back for all I receive.

I volunteer in the garden because I am a keen gardener and others get so much out of the garden at Ponthafren. Some people have no garden or in fact a seating area. With volunteering, if somebody asks me to do something, I do not have a problem asking them to write it down if I’m not sure what they said and they don’t mind doing this. As an employee, this would not be okay.

Basically I volunteer because I can. I have failed so much over the years, in most aspects of my life. Volunteering, I feel I do not fail at all. Maybe I can make a difference to someone else!!!!

‘Volunteering’ = Coping , Living, Surviving, so really it is NOT Volunteering in my Mind or Heart !!!!!!

Thank you, Jan, for sharing your volunteering story with us. If you would like to find out more about volunteering, contact the Powys Volunteer Centre which is managed by Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations.

Are you on benefits? Do you volunteer? Tell us about your experiences in the comments box below.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Tea-on-Top: with Brecon & District Mind

Every year members and Friends of Brecon & District Mind ascend the mountain called Pen-y-Crug in the Brecon Beacons for what they call “Tea-on-Top.” It is said to be a Lammas Day tradition, and those that go describe it as magical.

This year’s event takes place on Sunday 27 July. We gave Sue Hiley-Harris, Chair of the Friends of Brecon & District Mind, a call to ask her more about it.

Tea-on-Top 2010 - the musicians strike up a tune
Tell us more about what happens on the day
We meet at Brecon Cathedral car park at 2.00pm and walk up Pen-y-Crug together where we find tea, cakes and sandwiches waiting for us. The walk is a three-mile round trip, passing the ancient Maendu Well and exploring the Iron Age hillfort of Pen-y-Crug with its magnificent views of the Brecon Beacons.

Who can take part? 

Anyone – although they do need to be able to walk the approx 1.5 miles up the hill. Some of it is over fields and stiles so we ask that people wear stout shoes and suitable clothing – for all weathers!

Tea-on-Top 2010 - what a crowd!
Whose idea was Tea-on-Top and which year did it start?
It was Gareth Morgan’s idea to organise a walk in the spirit of the Lammas Day walk and Pen y Crug seemed a suitable hill. Our first Tea-on-Top was in our first programme - 2010. This will be our fifth Tea-on-Top.

What is the Lammas Day tradition that inspired the trip? 
Lammas means ‘loaf-mass day’ but, in Wales, gatherings on hilltops at the beginning of August were not necessarily connected to the first harvest festival of the year. Trefor Owen, in his book on customs and traditions of Wales, describes ‘the shepherds’ feast’ (ffest y bugeiliaid) when shepherds would bring food to feast on a hilltop in early August. The Lammas Day tradition of tea and merrymaking on the top of the Brecon Beacons was popular in the region until the 1950s.

Tea-on-Top 2011 - the music keeps on playing
What kind of activities take place “on Top” apart from the tea? 
These vary from year to year but music plays a major part. Guitarist and singer Laurie usually organises friends to play with her. In 2012 Colin brought his Olympic torch and we all processed around the hill fort.

How do people describe their experience of taking part? 
'It was a lovely day, members, friends and the community got so much out of it. As one member, who made it to the top of Pen y Crug for the first time in many years, put it "(phew) I made it and it was worth it! I could stay up here all day." Thank you so much for co-ordinating it and making the event a great success.’ Nikki Cook, Service Manager, 2010.
‘Thank you to all involved in T on Top today. I had a great time, enjoyed the food, company and music, even the weather!' Rosie Whitfield, 2011.

Tea-on-Top 2012 - following the Olympic baton (photo by Charles Jenkin Jones)
Does Brecon & District Mind organise other walking trips or have a walking group? 
I am involved with the Friends and we do usually organise another walk during the year. Brecon and District Mind are in the process or reorganising a walking group and discussions are underway about a Friends and members walking group. 

What effect does being out in the open and experiencing nature have on people’s sense of wellbeing? 
Walking can greatly improve people’s wellbeing and Tea-on-Top has the added advantage of walking with others and the “carrot” of a nice cup of tea at the top.

Tea-on-Top 2013 - Sue Hiley Harris serving tea to thirsty walkers
Who provides the tea, or do people need to bring their own picnic? 
We provide the tea, sandwiches and cakes – and water. 

Tea-on-Top 2013 - fun despite a shower
What is your favourite memory from other Tea-on-Top days? 
That is hard to have just one favourite memory. The first Tea-on-Top in 2010 was magic. It had been an enormous feat of organisation so seeing so many people on the top of the Grug enjoying the tea and music remains a special memory. Last year a short rain shower brought everyone rushing under the gazebo or under umbrellas. The laughter and happiness this created is also a favourite memory. The sun soon came out again!

Tea-on-Top 2013 - tea & cakes, music and that amazing view!
The Friends of Brecon & District Mind was set up in 2010 to enhance and support the work of Brecon and District Mind (or Brecon & District Contact Association as it was known then). You can find out more about their programme of events here.

Update following 2014 Tea-on-Top event
Sue got in touch to say: Tea-on-Top was wonderful: the walk, the weather, the musicians, the tea and the food were all perfect.

Tea-on-Top 2014

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Bronllys Grand Opening - Wellness & Recovery Learning Centre

Last Thursday saw the Grand Opening of the new Wellness and Recovery Learning Centre at Felindre Ward in Bronllys Hospital, Talgarth, South Powys.

L - R: Philip Bowen (High Sheriff of Powys), Christine Field (Trustee Powys Mental Health Alliance), Jane Cooke (PAVO Mental Health Project Officer), Paul, Freda Lacey (PAVO Participation Officer), Laura Gallagher (PAVO County Mental Health Development Officer).
The DIY Futures project, with its vision of learning in relation to mental health wellness and recovery, has helped enable an exciting new development in the acute in-patient mental health ward in Bronllys Hospital, Powys. Through funding agreed with The Big Lottery Fund, petitioned by the Powys Patients' Council, originally facilitated by Powys Mental Health Alliance and now developed and managed by Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations (PAVO), the new Centre (also known as the Quiet Room) opened its doors.

Powys Wellness and Recovery Centres aim to reinforce and develop people’s strengths. The new Centre will provide a peaceful and relaxing place where books and online information, supporting learning about our mental health, wellbeing and recovery, can be accessed by patients on the ward.

My colleague Freda Lacey, who has been key in liaising with the many different agencies involved in the project, told me more about the Centre:

"The room or centre has been under development for some time and patients, volunteers, ward staff and other agencies, which have been linked with the Lottery funded DIY Futures project, have all contributed to helping shape and develop the room. Match funding was contributed by The League of Friends and the Felindre Legacy Trust (charitable funds donated to the hospital) to help outfit the room with new flooring, and furniture. Books promoting recovery, people’s stories or lived experiences of living with mental distress, information on medication and other useful resources have been purchased for the room. Two laptops with internet access have been provided for patients in order to help with accessing online information such as local support groups and/or community mental health wellness and recovery learning centres. Training will be provided on how to use the laptops for writing and self-support."

L - R: Mel Evans (Chairman Powys teaching Health Board), Philip Bowen (High Sheriff of Powys)
Mel Evans, Chairman of Powys teaching Health Board, and Philip Bowen, the High Sheriff of Powys, opened the Centre to a packed corridor of invited guests. These included patients and staff on the ward, other mental health professionals, representatives from Bronllys Hospital & Community League of Friends, the Felindre Legacy Trust, the Community Health Council, Powys Mental Health Alliance, Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations, and other voluntary sector mental health groups from across Powys.

Mel spoke to thank everyone, including the funders, for their contribution to the new Centre. Before they cut the ribbon and pronounced the Centre well and truly open, Philip read an extract from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth to set the scene. Macbeth is seeking support from his doctor to ease his wife’s troubled mind:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart? 

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.

Philip then spoke about the DIY Futures book “it’s the inside that matters”, a book that has “had me in tears”, adding that when seeking recovery “what better way than painting or writing about your problems.” He read extracts from the book, adding that it was very apt for the hospital setting. Many of the current patients and visitors on the day, who had not seen the book before, received their own personal copy to read. Future patients will have access to the book in the new room – and all agreed that there could not be a more useful and apt legacy of the DIY Futures project.

Jane Cooke, previously the DIY Futures Project Manager until May of this year, (she is now back as a Mental Health Project Manager at PAVO) told us about the e-book version of “it’s the inside that matters”, the DIY Futures Stories Project book. Stocks of hardback copies of the book are now running low but anyone with internet access can now dip into the stories of the people who came into contact with the project during its five year life.

The grand opening - visitors take a look around
L - R: Carla Rosenthal, (Powys Mental Health Alliance Magazine Editor), Penny Price (Ward Manager, Felindre Ward, Bronllys Hospital), Terry Hurford (Trustee Bronllys Hospital & Community League of Friends)
Visitors and patients also took the opportunity to look at some of the artwork from the DIY Futures book which was temporarily on display. Other artwork on the walls had been produced by the art group at Brecon & District Mind. The ward patients had created an amazing “recovery tree” with colourful leaves and inspiring words:
  • Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.
  • The only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude.
  • Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a song bird will come.
  • Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will.
  • Make your optimism come true.

L - R: Bill Fawcett (Vice Chair, Powys Mental Health Alliance), Andrew Hopkins (Senior Nurse, Mental Health Specialist Services, Aneurin Bevan Health Board)
L - R: Paul, Jill Dibling.
Browsing the bookshelves I found many other books and flyers available to the patients. To mention just a few – Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, the British Medical Association Concise Guide to Medicine and Drugs, Trauma & Recovery by Judith Herman, A Straight Talking Introduction to the Causes of Mental Health problems, Living with Voices: 50 Stories of Recovery, The Rainbow Journal: For young people who self-injure, Overcoming Anxiety, Stress and Panic. (Some of these books have already been reviewed on our blog – see links). There is also a comprehensive selection of Mind’s Information leaflets.

L - R: Jane Cooke (PAVO Mental Health Project Officer), Carl Cooper (PAVO Chief Executive Officer)
Terry Hurford (Trustee Bronllys Hospital & Community League of Friends), Kelvin Mills (Trustee, Powys Mental Health Alliance), Bill Fawcett (Vice Chair, Powys Mental Health Alliance)
Jan Chilton (Ponthafren Association 1-1 Worker)
On the day people reminisced a bit about the past, about the old Mid Wales Hospital, how life used to be for patients there, on the recent past when the room now housing the Wellness and Recovery Centre used to be a table tennis room. But the overall sense was of hope and optimism for the future – a future made better for patients on Felinde Ward by the creation of a new quiet space just for them.