Creating space for mutual support

Ella Rhodes reports.

One lunchtime clinical psychologist Dr Nina Browne encountered a breast cancer surgeon sitting in a tepee at the entrance to Blackpool Victoria Hospital. After chatting with a bereaved mother, this surgeon had become reacquainted with the power of doctors, their words and diagnoses, and the true pain of their patients; this experience had changed her practice.

This tepee, bedecked with fairy lights and comfy seats, was the brainchild of Sarah Mortimer, a Development Manager for the Association of Camerados, a social movement whose motto is ‘The answer to all our problems is each other’. Browne, works for fellow social enterprise Owls, whose vision is a world where anything is possible through collaboration and where communities are listened to and looked to for solutions. In partnership Browne had worked with Mortimer for the previous 18 months creating spaces in public environments which encourage people to connect.

For almost a year Mortimer and Browne worked to develop ‘living rooms’ in prisons, libraries and other unlikely locations, which initially consisted of sofas and a standard lamp, in an attempt to create spaces where people feel they can talk to and support each other. After some trial and error, and many positive experiences among those who used the living rooms, Mortimer came up with the idea of erecting a tepee in the main foyer of Blackpool’s Victoria Hospital for three weeks, with a simple sign outside which read: ‘This is a Public Living Room. A Place to relax, share, laugh and look out for each other. Come in, there’s no catch!’

Mortimer said: ‘I spent quite a lot of time at the tepee – but people didn’t know I worked for Camerados. I’d sit in the Costa opposite watching people go in and out. The way I describe it is they were subconsciously leaving their lanyards at the door, they were all interacting as humans, not as consultant and patient, there weren’t the power dynamics of the wards and waiting rooms. That was the most powerful thing.’ Browne and Mortimer have received hundreds of postcards and emails from those who used the tepee and felt it was a powerful place.

Browne said there was an enormous amount of evidence supporting the benefits of peer support and non-professional helpers: ‘Camerados are creating spaces that break down the barriers that divide us up. Enabling every day helping in people’s communities, supporting one another as human beings, with little, if any, professional intervention. This partnership is about psychologists working with non-psychologists and us moving away from traditional mental health settings but still having huge benefits for people’s mental wellbeing.’

Also a psychology MSc student at the University of Central Lancashire, Mortimer said including formal interventions within the living rooms would minimise the message of Camerados, adding: ‘The living rooms are very informal and at the opposite end of the spectrum to services. We’re trying to bring people back to being people and not having to fix each other. What would happen if you had a conversation with someone at a coffee shop or a bus stop? There’s not someone there to report to a keyworker, there’s a safety element in that they can trust each other to have conversations. We’re trying to put out these enabling spaces where everyone is on a level and supports each other.’

Camerados is hoping to expand the tepee concept and is on the hunt for eight partner hospitals in the NHS to test out more living rooms in hospitals. The organisation has also been experimenting with social eating in bringing communities together.

While there has been a growing movement within psychology to listen to the needs of communities and work with experts by experience, Browne said, there were more ways for psychologists to go beyond this: ‘Psychologists working with non-mental health professionals is really exciting. Working in new ways allows us to draw on the expertise and assets within communities to tackle social issues such as isolation. We need to create more spaces and opportunities for people to connect and really be empowered. There are other great examples of this in the youth field such as MAC-UK and RedThread. There’s definitely momentum in community psychology in the last decade, but I’m really interested in how psychologists working within any field can use their skills and expertise beyond individual approaches. We also need to be thinking of this outside the realm of community psychology, this is about mainstream psychology happening outside of the clinic.’

Browne said the experience of working in this way had changed her own practice: ‘It allows me to remove myself from the expert position and challenge the system we have around help-seeking. Had that surgeon not sat in the Tepee and listened to that mother she wouldn’t have had that experience. We need others to help us. It’s about being able to step out of our traditional practices for a moment and really listen to what people are telling us. That’s how we can build solutions together.’

- If you would like to find out more about the work of Camerados or contact Sarah Mortimer about expanding the living rooms project into your hospital please email [email protected]

To find out more about the work of Owls visit www.owls.org.uk or contact [email protected]. Browne has blogged about Camerados at www.owls.org.uk/blog

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