So it's Monday morning (well it was when I started this) and I didn't get half as much done over the weekend as I'd hoped - why is that such a familiar feeling.
Anyway, filled with the anticipation of a new week in which to further develop our e-community and its associated website I am having a go at this our first blog entry (until I post it I have no idea where it will go or what it will look like - so fingers crossed it does what I think it will and if not there may be some very public egg on my face!).
As you know MHFEdefinition isn't about a static website - the website is a vehicle to let us create an e-community of people interested in mental health and learning, skills and employment - a sort of virtual version of our former mental health networks.
As such it is a work in progress that we want you to help shape and grow. There are however some bits that we have obviously got planned and are still developing (the under construction notices give it away I feel).
The other week I was in Portsmouth seeing Pam Ringland and Sue Ward and in-between meetings I went round the historic dockyards. One of the things that I noticed was that there were more people gazing through the viewing panels of work going on for the Mary Rose than there were people looking at or going round the Victory. Now that might be because checking out the Mary Rose was free but I took it to show me that often people who are interested in something quite like to see progress as it is being made and not just the final finished product.
I took this to heart in working out just how much of a finished product we wanted to present to you when we launched MHFE and how much we wanted you to be able to share in its development and gradual unveiling. As part of that process, I thought I would blog once a week - sharing how things are shaping up in terms of development, design and content for the site while we still have bits 'under construction'
I also thought I'd use the blog to try to appeal to your better natures and get some much-needed help (please) with our social marketing and to try and persuade you to give us some feedback and join in our news, forums, etc.
On the design front:
We are very nearly there I think. The home page is just about finished - except for something to make it much clearer to people that in order to access everything and participate in discussions they need to register (which is free and compared to Moodledefinition seems pretty foolproof - so far).
We are waiting for a slightly nicer design for the page you go to when you click on one of the elements in the conceptual framework diagram (on the home page). This will make the hyperlinks currently in table cells are clearer and it's more obvious that you need to click on them to go to the relevant content - what do you think ? will that do the trick I wonder? Part of the challenge here has been to make the static website bit of the project work while at the same time making ourselves as independent as possible of the need for a web developer's support come April.
We know we are a bit lacking in photographs and images at the moment - how should we solve this one do you think?
On the development/technical front:
Based on various moans and groans about Moodle and the NIACEdefinition website (thank you) plus suggestions and examples you sent us (more thanks), we went into this project with a huge wish-list of desirable functions and features and as you might guess a somewhat smaller budget. That said, I don't think we are doing to badly.
Mind you, as with the first time for anything new, whether what we thought we wanted is really what we needed is something we'll no doubt get to decide with the benefit of hindsight.
News - is it working? Well it is from my point of view - in that I have been happily posting news items nearly every day as I do - but as no one has posted any comments I am a bit worried that maybe it doesn't quite work they way I think it does - are you receiving news posts OK I wonder?
The forums - seem to do what they are meant to do - but are devoid of your responses. So despite our previous Moodlers joining us on MHFE it's still proving to be a bit lonely. Post something please -if only to tell me it's working OK.
The library - now here I am in danger of crying 'come back Moodle - all is forgiven'. Our developer tells me that eventually we will have something way better than the subverted glossary tool that we used to use on Moodle, so I am trying to be patient. In my head it is all 'oh so easy' but - let me tell you - the reality is proving to be a bit more painstaking .
We are adding several resources each day and categorising them carefully so that when you are in one of the topic areas from the diagram on the home page then clicking the library/respurces link in the left hand sidebarof that page should bring up resources that we have flagged as relevant. You can of course also use the website 'search' function. But what I am after for us is a functrion that allows us just to search the library as well.
The virtual classroom/learning centre - thank you to those of you who have begun to post or ask us to post information about your events/conferences/training, etc. Keep them coming. Anyine who is registered can post to the forthcoming events forum and you can upload an image or a document to go weith your posting. Until people find their way to this forum we've been posting details of events in the news too.
We are itching to get going with our programme of webinars. Several of us have bought our headphones and microphones ready for the purpose but as anyone who has seen or spoken to me recently will atest some croaking creature moved into my vocal box about 4 weeks ago and no matter the vast quantities of lemon, honey and Paracetamol I have consumed nothing seems to have shifted it yet. As soon as my voice is back we will get going with them.
One of the project team (Susan Easton) is going to be looking for some volunteers soon to do some 'user testing' of the site - but meanwhile if you find evidence of any e-gremlins or are just frustrated by something we've done do please let us know, so that we can put it right. A good example of this is that I just went to use the 'send to a friend' facility -never mind sending to a friend I couldn't even get it to accept my worst enemy's email address so there's obviously a gremlin in there somewhere. Has anyone else managed to make it work yet?
On the content front:
By this I mean all the things you access via the clickable diagram. This is where you'll find 3 'under construction' notices still displayed. We are creating this content day by day (and if you spot a typo it is probably mine - for which I apologise, but just like Moodle there's no spell check here - I guess it would help if I moved to a bigger screen for this than my little netbook so that at least I can see what I am doing!).
We hope that while we add this content you will look around the other areas and the library, join in the forums and post your news and events . The partnership working content is almost done and the other two areas will be unveiled next week - so do pop back to see how we are progressing and if you can please bring a friend or two or ten!
On the social marketing front: &
It is great to see so many former mental health networkers and moodlers and to see a few new faces too. But we need more people if we are to make this into a viable e-community and sustainable resource.
We have some really challenging targets (between now and the end of March - so no pressure!)
The first is to create a vibrant e-community that shapes and develops this area of work and takes it forward. Sure we have held back some resources from the mental health partnership programme last year to launch on this new site over the next few weeks but what we really want to do is help you to network and begin to exchange ideas, contribute and share new resources and identify gaps or problems in translating policy into practice. LSISdefinition has recently funded development work in a number of areas and the providers who are involved will use MHFE to set up closed groups initally as a platform for them to work together and develop new content, and then they will disseminate and share what comes out of their projects and the lessons they learn via our forums, content pages, library and webinar programme. Watch this space as they'll be reporting in just a couple of months - but also think about whether you are involved in developing an area of work (maybe on your own or with local partners across sectors or organisations) that could make use of the facilities that MHFE can offer you in a similar way?
The second target is to widen and grow this e-community if we are to keep it refreshed and ensure that it always challenges our thinking about the experiences of and outcomes for learners and colleagues who have mental health difficulties and how we can improve the quality of what we do. This target is a particularly stretching one because the old face to face networks were popular and worked well - so we are tasked with building on the number of people involved.
Don't worry though, I have worked out that if everyone who is currently registered gets another 5 colleagues or learner's service users who want to be involved signed up in the next 5 weeks then we'll make it. So that means that your mission, should you chose to accept it is to recruit 5 more members.
I have set up a forum so that you can share tips and ideas for how you are enagaing in the mission.
Good luck (and no, this blog will not self-destruct in 2 minutes).
We'll be back next Monday with another progress report for you.
Obviously it's been one of the key national topics for discussion this week and it is managing to cause a strong backlash all the way around.There are some powerful related news items in the sidebars to the story that are also worth reading, in particular the very revealing Guardian blog following the news story, which you can read at:
As well as the issue of expecting people to work unpaid for an unspecified period of time (which of course some will do because of the fear of sanctions) there also seems in the DWP presentation to be a complete lack of understanding of the necessary conditions to support people's mental health and wellbeing and recovery from mental illness and that instead of 'compliance' some people will instead stop claiming benefit and drop off the radar to live as 'ghosts' outside of the system and society.
At a push, I could just get to a point where I could see that a short mandated placement might help a small group of people to be able to gain confidence in themselves and equally importantly in an employer. Perhaps if they have been out of the workplace for a long time and feel too powerless to be able to make any positive choices for themselves, but in that case I'd need to know they had all the support in place tht they might need and that is was clearly part of a whole and personalised plan. But there is sa real risk presented here that it will be none of these things. In one fell swoop so much more than the chance for people to find something positive in an 'unpaid work experience' risks being lost.
Some MHFE members and colleagues of members are welfare reform policy makers or work in employment services and other partner agencies. We know and respect their work to try to deliver the reforms in a sensitive and empowering way, so that it creates opportunities. The chance of anyone achieving that though fades as more stories come out, comments emerge and big employers (quite rightly) pull out of unpaid work experience (although perhaps not always for the right reasons). It is just so damaging of people's trust in the state and the welfare reform programme (which is often fragile because of people's past personal experiences).
I know from the experience of representing someone last week around a mandated decision (made entirely via telephone) that there are unfortunately staff who don't have the knowledge or skills to respond in a way that is either appropriate to the complexity of people's needs or circumstances when they have mental health problems - or even just to their humanity. I did eventually manage to get a supervisor to re-look at the sanction decision but the individual I was representing had given up hours before and accepted loss of benefit (DLAdefinition) becuase they could not cope with the feelings provoked by the intensely pressurised way they were being dealt with on the phone.
The naivety shown in the DWP presentation is firstly that it does make unpaid work experience 'feel' like a sanction and how things make you 'feel' is often absolutely key to how people with mental health problems in particular. respond. Secondly, it is in thinking that employment staff will be able to recognise and respond to complexity and fluctuations in a person's condition, which is not fair to vulnerable claimants or to those staff implementing the policy.
As I experienced last week, the danger is that when staff understand the 'outcome' they are required to achieve in a transaction but lack the knowledge and skills to engage with the complexity of the human being who is actually involved they will learn to protect themselves from the difficult feelings and to preserve own wellbeing by, for example, (mis)using the power of sanctions and the anonymity of the phone and the broken record technique as their own emotional survival strategy. It just works against 'hope' and recovery at so many levels doesn't it.
Recently I looked at the Take Ten People Ups and Downs Board Game and wondered whether it was time to archive it. After all, lots of the 'opportunities' (welfare to work initiatives) cited in the game no longer exist. I asked some people with experience of using mental health services if I should archive it or try to update it? 'Neither' they said. 'you need to keep them in'. One person added: 'I reckon I've been through nearly every one of them schemes. Every time, I was told it was the answer. It would get me into a job.'
Helpfully, they reminded me, that although I should keep in the experiences I do need to turn most of what had been ladders of opportunity into snakes that 'just keep taking you right back to the beginning'...
It just seems too thoughtless and really rather out of date in terms of our understandings of wellbeing and recovery. Where is the positive benefit of people being able to make choices recognised? Where is the opportunity for someone to feel they are taking control over their life? Flippant and/or bullish responses as we have seen when spookespeople are pushed on questions about time limits are arrogant. They set people's alarm bells ringing -particularly when, despite the state of the economy, so much of the public rhetoric about current welfare reforms is about sanctions. Why not give a time limit ? Why on earth not try to create an opportunity in which disabled people claiming ESAdefinition and employers could get to see several important things that would give both sides better understanding and a sense of hope? Things like:
- Exactly what an individual might want to do
- Exactly what skills someone has and might need support to develop for the workplace
- Exactly what support they might need initially in work (and learning) and how this changes once some of the practical barriers are removed and support is put into place
- How Access to Workdefinition actually works and can be used in practice. Using discretionary funds is not the same thing from anyone's perspective. Until people understand Access to Work and experience it then it'll remain a best kept secret, particualrly from people with mental health problems (for whom there remains relatively limited examples and low awareness of how Access to Work can be used).
I thought MHFE members might be especially interested to read the joint response last November that was made by several national mental health charities, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which points out that more than 40% of 'WRAG' have mental health problems. (I case the link above doesn't work copy and paste the following into your browser:
An aside about 'WRAG'
Is it me? Or is WRAG the acronym for the Employmentdefinition Support Allowance (ESA) 'Work Related Activity Group' something of a faux pas too.
I've added it to the MHFE glossary but why is it there is always a new acronym that is never going to 'sound' positive and which makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise because of how its sound associations, which depersonalise people who are vulnerable and/or affected by less than well-thought out policy implementation approaches. I thought the days when the Department of Work and Pensions and some employment services described groups of people who were out of work and claiming benefits as new and old 'stock' - but then why doesn't WRAG feel like it? Nothing to do with worn out or discarded cloths then and no judgements intended...