Breaking the silence on workplace bullying and grievance procedures

You know when you left school and moved into the world of work, did you think that adults will be more understanding? And well, more grown-up? I did. I was bullied at school, an area of my life that I’m still unable to go into great details about. It’s still painful. And I had no idea that 20 years on from the month I had to move schools, I’d be revisiting the word again. This time, in a different context. AND at work. I’ve realised that adults can be subtle. They can be clever. They are very good at hiding unfavourable treatment against colleagues, covering it up and finding excuses.

If a child told us they were being bullied, we’d tell them to speak to a teacher, parent or other trusted adult. We’d encourage them to speak out and offer reassurance that they aren’t alone. There are organisations like Anti-Bullying Pro providing support and advice for children and young people who are bullied and we’ve recently had Anti Bullying week, bringing bullying into the media and encouraging young people to talk and campaign. I went through mediation as a teenager with some of the girls who bullied me and I was given some leaflets about bullying when I went to the school nurse with an anxiety attack, (but that’s another story.) I didn’t feel short of people to turn to about the bullying I experienced as a young person, not that it was always dealt with appropriately, but at least I could talk about it. It was also impartial. The bullies mum wasn’t handling any disciplinary meetings at school or holding the mediation I went to. Imagine it though? You’ve just been through the horrendous and isolating experience that is bullying, and when a meeting is finally arranged to deal with it, you head into school to find the bullies mum sitting there, ready to kick off proceedings. It just wouldn’t happen would it? And their mum will surely try everything in her power to protect little Johny. No detentions this time around. It may not literally be the bullies mum holding grievance meetings at work but I’m sure you get my point.

What support do we get as an adult? Especially when we enter the workplace and expect bullying to be a distant memory? Following discussion with others, it seems, not a lot. Most people are unable to talk, for fear of losing their jobs and the damage to their professional reputation it may do. For these reasons I am unable to discuss the specifics of my situation, but I can say that workplace bullying and being forced into a grievance procedure destroyed years of carefully built up self-esteem. I went from a fairly happy and bouncy Alice, who thought she was on the cusp of finally ‘sorting herself out’ to someone who felt utterly broken. I started experiencing chest pains, a common anxiety symptom but something I have never had with my anxiety before. As you can imagine, the first time it happened I thought I was dying, so I constantly held onto my wrist to make sure I could still feel a pulse. Isn’t anxiety logic great? I experienced sleep problems, stopped seeing friends and found myself feeling tearful in the most bizarre or inconvenient of places. I was eventually prescribed beta blockers to help me get through meetings and to prevent things from jeopardising the other work I do. It was during an anxiety attack WHILST HAVING A SMEAR TEST, when it was suggested I see a doctor about taking something for my anxiety, that had previously been pretty stable without medication for years. She was lovely, but I’m sure she could have done without dealing with me that day. Sometimes small talk isn’t helpful, or sometimes it is, whatever way you look at it.

I felt very alone dealing with this and quickly came to realise that grievance procedures are one-sided. They focus on looking after the organisation, and protecting peoples jobs, often conducted by senior managers who are on a damage limitation mission. Checking out how I was doing didn’t exist and I felt increasingly alienated during the process, as if I had done something wrong by speaking up. I felt so alone. Is it just me who goes through this? I hopefully trawled the internet for people who had been through it too. Am I the only one? I wondered. It was very late in the day when I finally used the words “bullying” to describe my situation. I didn’t relate what I was going through to the bullying I had experienced in the playground 20 years ago. I didn’t accept that it was a breed of the same thing. There is a stigma surrounding adults experiencing bullying and we are all forced into this strange silence. This is what I found online, very few people were able to speak out, very few people knew that there were others out there like them too and there was a lack of guidance from people who had experienced similar. The ACAS website was wonderful as was advice from my union rep, but during my lowest moments chatting to people who had been there too meant the most to me. I wanted to know what to expect from a grievance process, my anxiety detests uncertainty, but I found myself riding the waves very much alone. The only way I realised I wasn’t the only one was by speaking to people privately. This helped me realise that other people have been or are going through the same emotional turmoil. They too wondered if they should say something. They wondered about the process of taking up a grievance. We were all scared about what speaking out would do to our reputation, so often approached the subject cautiously. I’m part of a MANY but at the time I didn’t know this. This is why we need to change how we approach and talk about workplace bullying, to create a dialogue that will be helpful for everyone.

I decided to write this, because last night I read a petition started by Lucy Nichol and on doing so burst into tears. Her petition calls for more transparency and impartiality in workplace grievance processes. A change that will make it easier to challenge bad treatment and to feel supported in that decision. You can sign her petition here. Please do sign and share. I have never felt so strongly about a petition as I do with this one. There are too many of us who are unable to speak out, those unable to put the jigsaw pieces together to recognise their experiences as bullying and people who fear the stigma of admitting to such difficulties in the workplace. All on top of a massive taboo of dealing with mental illness at work. My experience is just one of far too many. It’s comforting to know this but devastating that others have to go through this too. If we work together to change how we tackle and view bullying at work, i’m certain we can make it better. No one should feel like they don’t have anywhere safe to turn.

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Posted in Education, Mental health, Politics | Leave a comment

Employment isn’t always plain sailing

Back in 2010, I remember sitting in the desert in India, watching the sunset, drinking chai, writing in my journal and watching the Indians thrash us at volley ball yet again. I’d graduated from university the summer before, and life then, was exciting but incredibly uncertain. I didn’t know who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go next, so I travelled (insert how many miles away India is) to find the answers to those questions. Living with seven girls from across the UK, and a total of 47 people on camp plus a staff team from India gave me the opportunity to find out about their lives, what they’d done, what they wanted to do and why they were there. We all had a story. I realised this after the first night in our homestay, when my room and bed mate (we got to know each other very well, very quickly…) told me why she was there, the fear she felt and the uncertainty that lay before us. Feelings that echoed my own. We made a pact that night “we’re going to get through this together.”  From that first night we got on well. And we more than saw our pact through.

India wasn’t a traditional gap year in any sense of the word, the organisation I went with who were funded by Department for International Development, Platform 2, sent young people (18-25 year olds) to volunteer abroad for ten weeks. To be accepted onto the programme you had to be deemed as “disadvantaged” in some way, for reasons of health, finances or other barriers that meant you wouldn’t be able to enjoy a traditional gap yah. So yes, I’ve been able to travel, but it was far removed from our ideas of a gap year. These parameters alone set the tone for the trip.

At this time I didn’t have much experience of work, and had no idea what it meant to look for a career. I left uni, went to India to run away, work out who I am and decide what I wanted to do next. For ages that was to become a teacher, but I’m glad my maths abilities are too awful for that plan to ever become anything other than an idea in my head. At university I was too dyspraxic to get a job just to get by, so I never had those part time jobs in bars or shops, that many of my friends went to after long days in lectures.  Not being able to get a so called “easy job” was hard to explain and is equally difficult for people to get their heads around now. I did however work for the university as a student representative, my first real experience of a job that paid money. It essentially involved working on open days, allowing 6th formers from local schools to follow me around for the day and going into schools to talk about university life. This kind of part time job suited me well.

My experiences of employment have changed a lot following the safety net of university, something I need to be suitably vague about for now, due to uncertain legals. I have as a rule disclosed my dyspraxia and sometimes anxiety to employers after successful interviews. I say “sometimes anxiety” because I still have a lot of self stigma around that, this harps back to almost going abroad again a few years later (with a different organisation,) can you spot the running away theme? I was told then by someone who had quite a lot of responsibility for duty of care, that he was ‘totally unpreppared to support me’ because I had disclosed having been on anti-depressants on a medical form. “What if she needs to go back on them again?!” I read in an email. Well bollocks, I say. But reading something like that really does knock your confidence. Even if you are determined to not let it. So, I’ve been understandably cautious since.

I’m writing this after months of reflections, feeling utterly broken and sleepless nights caused entirely by anxiety. I can’t be specific about this, but in some organisation, in a region somewhere, in a job, I experienced bullying, stigma and discrimination again. The sad reality is that many people go through similar but few are able to talk about it or know that there are others out there like them, although unions do exist for a reason. There is also little acceptance of what going though an experience like mine can do to your mental health.

For years I’ve had to take lots of sessional work, not for the lack of trying but because given the current climate that’s all I’ve found available, and universal credit doesn’t sound like an inviting alternative. Sessional work is essentially 0 hours contacts for professionals, that gives you little to no rights. I’ve had several sessional jobs, that claim to offer flexibility, but in reality this is only flexibility for the employer, not you. You are paid for the hours you work. There’s no sickness.  No NI contributions. Sometimes you might get holiday pay but most of the time you don’t. And if a session is cancelled for reasons out of your control, you aren’t paid. No one can plan on a contract like this. It also means, that if they decide they don’t want you one day, they are well within their rights to do so. And they don’t expect you to argue. I’ve spoken to employers who see sessional workers as “just sessional workers” and I’ve heard from others on these contracts who believe that they can’t complain. “At least I have a job,” is a fear I hear too often, and rightfully so but it’s so wrong that people have to think like this. The best thing I have ever done is join a union and hold people to account. And I did this without claiming sick pay when I got ill again, because there wasn’t any. There is a bigger campaign in abolishing these kind of contracts but if we get together and stand up for our rights, maybe employers will begin to listen.

I thought I’d identify some of the things I’ve learned at work in the last decade;

Things I’ve learned

1) Join a union

Joining a union has helped me to order my arguments and get advice about where I stand when I was beginning to understand employment law. It also made me realise that how I was feeling about my situation was completely justified, and there was someone prepared to fight my corner and change things.

2) Disclosure is never straightforward

I’ve gone from never disclosing to always disclosing, but I never know what is right. It has never been easy, and if anything knowing the right thing to do has got harder. I think, looking at your situation, what you’d get out of disclosing your disability or health condition and knowing your rights if things go wrong are good steps. If anything, after disclosing I am protected under discrimination laws, but that doesn’t stop people abusing positions of power.

3. Keep a file and back up everything in writing

I was very organised (in all situations I’ve challenged ways I’ve been treated) by keeping a file of all emails, interactions and meetings. Drawing up a timeline also helps plot events. I also, when I realised things were starting to get tricky asked for every conversation to be backed up in writing. This helped to keep a paper trail and provided points of reference for meetings.

4. Read up on employment law (or any other law you’re challenging…)

A union rep is a great source of information, but its always good to go into meetings with some background knowledge. After studying media law at university I will always be in awe of lawyers who have to know all of the laws. The ACAS website became my stable bedtime reading, I found the advice there invaluable. Also read forums or other online communities where people have been through similar situations to you.

5. Seek support from friends and family

Support from my family and friends has been invaluable and is something we all need when going through difficult times. I’ve had people to proof read letters, rant to and discuss strategies with. They also phone me and let me tell them about my cats. This all helps. I wouldn’t have got to where I am now without any of them.

6. Go to a doctor if you need to

Something I hoped I wouldn’t need to do. I was angry it made me feel that way and didn’t want to accept that I was in bits because of difficulties at work. It was affecting me more than I understood at the time but speaking to a doctor put it on my record, and this was further evidence should I need it later.

7. Take time out to do things you’d normally do

This is probably one of the most important of them all, and something I’ve never really managed. Whenever I’ve had to challenge something, whether at work, university or volunteering, it has totally consumed my life. I thought that my life had to revolve around getting results by fighting whatever it was at the time. It has always been exhausting thinking this way. At no time have I ever thought “Yes, this thing being all of my life is the right thing.” It never is and your mental health will take a battering as a result. Just like during periods of anxiety, I’ve avoided friends, would only talk to my parents about the one thing on my mind and stopped doing things I would usually do. Please don’t let it consume your life. Have days off. It will still be there when you get back, and having a day to enjoy yourself won’t make the world end, I assure you. The one thing I wish I’d done is see friends more, and now I’m almost at the other side of it, I’m determined to put this right.

8. Know your limits

It’s no use trying to save the world if your mental health is going to suffer. Employment tribunals, grievance meetings and the time it takes to get together evidence to make a case is exhausting. This exhaustion is often magnified for those of us who have anxiety or other mental illnesses. You will spend every waking moment writing letters. And every subconscious moment (when you do get to sleep) dreaming about every possible outcome. Sometimes saying, I’ve done all I can do now and focussing on your mental health is better than pushing on until you have no fight left in you. If walking away after having your say is the better thing for you, and your wellbeing, please do that. Equally just knowing that you weren’t at fault is sometimes better than the stress of taking things further.

Back in the golden sands and sunshine of the Thar desert, when I was an unsure 21 year old searching for something I didn’t have a name for, I would never have imagined then that I’d experience difficulties in the workplace or volunteering five times in a decade, most of these times I was too tired and inexperienced to say something was wrong, until the last and very recent time. And I know, more than anything that this certainly isn’t going to be the last. In India I was there to teach the children but quickly realised that the kids of Jaisalmer taught me more, and have helped me to evaluate things even to this day.

Next month I’m 30, and I know that I’ve definitely not found what I was looking for in the desert back than, maybe it didn’t even exist or maybe I’ve just found something else. Either way, I wanted to write this because it was important for me to explain the last few months without the specifics, and to put this in writing so that I almost believe it myself. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sessional worker or Chief Executive, situations that resemble the above and make you feel undervalued or bullied, are not okay. It’s hard having to tell people this, but you really do feel brilliant once you get to have your say. And sometimes having a say is all we need.

Posted in Adventures, Dyspraxia, Mental health, Politics, Writing, Youth Work | Leave a comment

I believe. I want. I do.

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Recently, while tidying up, I came across an old school report. I sat down and read some of it, one teacher commented; “Alice has an innate sense of justice and fairness.” another teacher wrote: “historians are not judges or juries,” referring to, I think, my constant need to have an opinion in history essays, when all I needed to do to get a good grade was report on the historical facts.

This first comment made me think, there isn’t a moment when I’m not thinking or more aptly over-thinking but I pondered this for a moment. I have always wanted and needed to stand up for things that aren’t right, challenge people who upset me and to be listened to. I’ve dealt with my fair share of situations I’ve needed to challenge or others have challenged for me when I was too young to do so myself. I moved schools when I was 9 because I was horrendously bullied, by both pupils and teachers. I remember my mum standing at the school gates with a petition to get an anti-bullying policy because the school denied any bullying ever went on in their school. My early childhood memories consist of letters being written to directors of education and politicians about a situation affecting me, but something I barely understood at the time. Maybe some of this need to stand up for myself and the rights of others stemmed from here? It’s possible. That said people shouldn’t have to fight for their rights so much, especially around disability or mental health problems. I started to experience anxious thoughts beyond what would be seen as normal for a child my age when I was eight, yet the average age of onset for anxiety disorders is 11. Although I remember my first debilitating anxiety attack when I was 12. I’d met anxiety before I had even started my periods, and I think before we had any talks about puberty at school. This shows that mental health and changes to our bodies should be talked about at a much younger age than they are (or were, it might be different now…) It makes me so sad every time I hear a story about someone having to fight against things that are fundamentally wrong. And exhausts me when I find myself in a situation I need to challenge. I forget not everyone lives inside my nice, friendly bubble. A circle I have grown of genuinely understanding people.

I started writing when I did because I wanted to connect with people, some with similar experiences and some with different outlooks so we can all learn. Deep rooted in my writing is a desire to make changes and to let others know they certainly aren’t alone. My “innate sense of justice and fairness” most definitely hasn’t left me and brilliant campagns like Time to Change wouldn’t exist if we’d done all of the challenging we need to do.

My “stand up for what you believe in” attitude didn’t leave when I changed schools at 9, the problems didn’t go away, new difficulties arose, and if anything my desire to make a difference grew stronger as I began to be able to speak for myself more. Secondary school was where I truly found my voice, and it became a place where I would literally stand up and say “No” along with several other words, if something happened to me (or other people) that I didn’t think was right. On one occasion I was given six detentions and one incident slip in one day because I challenged teachers about being made to leave my bag outside the library. I laugh at how ridiculous this situation was now, but at the time it was pretty traumatic. I had anxiety, and needed to know my possessions were safe. Something that my fifteen year old self couldn’t communicate at the time, so, I was seen as rebelling against the rules. I fought it, and eventually all detentions were rescinded. Since then I have maintained a reputation for standing up for what I believe, even if by the end of it I fall to pieces. I’m better at judging how far I can take something now, and how much my mental health can deal with. I also recognise when I need to take some time away to forget about whatever it is that’s going on for me.

I’ve been brought up in a youth organisation called the Woodcraft Folk, who encourage children and young people from a very young age to have a say and understand their rights, and the rights of others. I’ve never known a Woodie not to challenge things that they see as wrong. I went on International camps where we were taught about sustainability, debating and the rights of the child. I could recite article 12 by the age of 7. I knew about conflict in the world before most children do, we wrote amnesty cards at Christmas to prisoners of war and went on protests about everything. Singing songs around a campfire about peace and wishing for a better world, really did make me think of things much closer to home as well as further a field. As I grew up I wanted to change things for everyone around me. I wrote to my school headteacher once complaining about litter, he wrote back and they set up an environmental club that ran on Thursday lunchtimes. I was proud to be listened to. And realised then, the value words can really have.

As my anxiety intensified and I started to understand my diagnosis of dyspraxia, I realised that it was mental health and disability (or hidden differences) that I had to shout about. I began talking to other people, and was saddened to hear that they had been there too. A theme began to emerge, people talked about the assumptions from others, the misunderstandings and the conclusions that had been made about them but without them. This often happens because people don’t listen or choose not to. Listening is a skill I learned to be just that, a skill, when I volunteered for the Samaritans a couple of years ago. I honestly think “listening” should be a training as mandatory as safeguarding or a DBS check in a new job.

My first real experience of being treated differently because of my mental health was on a university trip to Paris, when we were told we’d be going INTO a riot. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t feel a little bit concerned by this. I was told, that I wouldn’t be able to cope and should take the Eurostar home. To travel away from a trip I had paid for and was excited about. I spent the first bus journey in tears because I didn’t feel understood. I felt judged and broken because someone assumed my mental illness meant that I was weak and couldn’t cope. But you know what? Anxiety makes us stronger, it gives you an outlook on life that others can only imagine and it makes you determined to make things better, if not for yourself but for others. That situation on the coach, on the way to Paris could have been prevented if I’d been listened to. A situation that would never have happened if we’d gone to a museum that day or anywhere to avoid the centre of Paris. I mean, I don’t go to town when the EDL are marching because the thought of them makes me anxious. It’s really not hard to avoid these situations. And as someone with anxiety, I am an expert at avoiding situations. This was a moment when I didn’t stand up for what I believed in, I turned into a mess, terrified of what should have been a fun trip away. I wish I’d been able to explain that yes, I won’t cope in a riot but going home when you have travel anxiety also isn’t an option. I didn’t. I couldn’t. We went to the riot the next day and I had an anxiety attack in the middle of Paris, not fun for me or anyone around me but I learned loads from that day. I knew that I’d be telling a completely different story, if my then lecturers showed some empathy and understanding. I learned that sometimes, when we feel utterly broken, it can be hard to stand up for ourselves, and that is okay too. I realised then, that I wanted to speak for (and with) others who, like me are unable to challenge things for themselves because of how they feel. In numbers we can do amazing things. We can make people listen and we can support others to speak out so they don’t feel so alone.

Recently it was World Mental Health Day, and I ran an event mark the day, bringing people together to start conversations about mental health. As I sat there, introducing the speakers and feeling proud that I had brought these people together, I thought, these are my people. I felt part of a community and it never fails to amaze me what people can do when they get together. My small event in a tiny corner of the North East is part of a bigger movement supporting people to make changes and to confront mental health stigma & discrimination. People spoke on learning difference and mental health, the importance of writing and experiences as a student with a mental illness. It was a time to connect. A time to network. The room was filled by an atmosphere where people could “just be” and this felt wonderful. You see, you don’t always have to launch a politics magazine or take someone to court to make changes. Sometimes all you need to do is listen to people around you and give them the space to share their story.

One comment that will stay with me; “people need somewhere to go, something to do, and someone to do it with,” that I’m sure resonates with all of us.

My “innate sense of justice and fairness” has grown stronger, I’ve developed a clear sense of identity that has anxiety & dyspraxia right in the middle of it and I often want to make things better for other people. I was once stopped going on a volunteering trip to South Africa because I disclosed having taken antidepressants on a medical form. I knew I was never going to get anywhere near that plane, nor would I want to, but I wanted to shout about why that was wrong for the people who will be standing there after me, both literally and metaphorically. ‘I don’t want others to go through what I’ve been through’ is a cliche but very true.

Although, having to constantly shout about things that are not okay, will eventually take its toll on your brain. Especially when they involve work, a job you love and make you question all decisions you’ve made up until now. We will often think, as anxiety quite happily lets us believe, that we’ve made it all up. We’re making a big deal out of everything. Challenging things will just make us out to be a massive liar. “It’s your perception” they would say in chorus with my brain, I wish it was, but judging by my research that mainly consists of Twitter and friends IRL, other people are going through the same, so it really isn’t just my perception. It’s only when a massive dose of stigma and discrimination slaps you in the face, something I need to be vague about for now, that you are made to think; “does this happen to other people?” and when the answer is always “yes” I wonder, what can I do about it?

I have, in all of my 20’s experienced minor to major difficulties at work, largely related to things I cannot change about me, nor would I want to. It’s when these difficulties are echoed in other peoples lives that upsets me most, but also brings the most comfort. I once lost a job because my friend died and they wouldn’t let me have time off to go to his funeral, I’ve challenged how inclusive some activities were for a group of young people with disabilities in another and I’ve been met with confusion about my personality by many employers. As a youth worker I’ve had to accept a lot of short term, seasonal or sessional contracts, that offer you no rights if things go wrong. Contracts that I believe are fundamental ways to hide discrimination and often exploit people. We always hear that old chestnut of needing experience to get the job, but needing the job to get the experience. There is literally no middle ground. I have no idea how to get into management, not that I want to be there but if I did, I wouldn’t have a clue. Many people in their 20’s and 30’s have to take jobs they are over-qualified for, if they want a job at all. And universal credit doesn’t sound like an alternative many will choose.

I’m writing this for anyone who has ever felt judged at work, in eduction or anywhere else in your life. Everyone who hasn’t been listened to and for those who stand up for things that need to change but also for others who find it difficult to do so, because that is absolutely okay too. We’re in this together and unity (as my woodies roots told me) makes for a community. I’ve felt valued in many places, alongside not feeling understood, but it is finding a sense of belonging that I have learnt more from and has really kept me going. People can be mint.

I don’t quite know where I am or how I feel at the moment but writing this down has helped. But I know, it will eventually be okay and you’ll be okay too.

 

 

Posted in Dyspraxia, Mental health, Writing, Youth Work | Leave a comment

“It’s taken me 10 years to get here and I still don’t know where I am…”

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I recently said the above to a group of young people during a conversation about how it has become increasingly difficult to make decisions about your future at such a young age. Some schools even start GCSE’S in year 9 now, I mean what’s that all about? I was meant to be encouraging but in hindsight it probably wasn’t exactly what they wanted to hear. It was however, very very true. Brutal honesty is something I appear to do well.

I’m a youth worker by training and over the six years I’ve been qualified, I have had conversations with young people about the future all too often. I see them stressed about exams, worrying about A levels and there always seems to be some change in grade boundaries to make exams more difficult. Do they really need these changes? Is it worth the detrimental affect on 17 and 18 year olds mental health? I vote not. And I can guarantee there’ll be an army of people who are with me there. Why change something if it’s not broken? I say this a lot, in relation to a lot – most recently personality. There is a specific personality that appears to be more valued by society, and everyone else is expected to conform to fit this desired type of person. You can probably guess what type of person I’m alluding to here. And I am not it. So yes, why fix something that isn’t broken? Personality A isn’t any better than personality B. It’s just different. The one thing most people are fearful of. Young people are expected to follow the same path, GCSE’S, A levels and then university is the usual route if your school earmarks you as academically able. If not, your route is planned, often before you even sit your GCSES, and deemed not as good as journey A. But this isn’t true, is it? It’s just different. Again, we’re often scared of difference. What if you’re expected to go on journey A but prefer B? You are guilt-tripped with all of the reasons why this will be a terrible decision. I’ve known young people who’ve achieved straight A’s, but were certain university isn’t for them. Yet the support wasn’t there to help them explore other options. This can also understandably shatter mental health and self esteem. “Am I good enough if I don’t go to uni,” they ask. “Of course you are,” I say. “And don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.” Stigma of the decisions we make can be so damaging to our mental health, alongside the actual stigma of mental illness.

Similarly, young people who are not expected to go to university, but decide “I’d quite like to try that university game” often go through an equally tough time. No one should have to prove that they are good enough for anything. That sentence alone sums up why I didn’t go into teaching. I was one of those teenagers, who for ages was written off and told not to even bother reading university prospectuses. Not because I wasn’t passing exams, I was, I was extremely academically capable. I was in top set English and played violin in the youth orchestra. I was everything that would pigeon hole me to go on journey A. The only anomaly was that I had a diagnosis of dyspraxia. A diagnosis that was massively misunderstood then, and so it was assumed that people with special educational needs don’t go to university. A theory, I of course proved wrong along with many others.

The young people told me about getting numbers rather than grades to asses attainment, so you get a 5 rather than a C (I think!) and some A level courses are now teaching university standard content. No wonder there’s an increase in young people with anxiety disorders and depression, when they’re being forced to sit exams years before their brain is ready. They may have changed the syllabuses, but generally speaking 18 year olds aren’t that much different to when I was their age. And I know, I wouldn’t be able to pass A levels now, I have seen the GCSE music content, so my hat really does go off to any young person who manages to study for A levels, keep up with extra curricular activities and maintain a social life.

As the conversation progressed, we talked about life plans, how to decide what we want to do and that sometimes, it’s okay not to have a clue. “People will present as having it all sorted, but their head often tells a different story,” I told them.

I didn’t tell them that at the age of almost 30 I’m seriously considering having some time out because I’m at the stage now when the path is hidden, and I’m completely lost. I couldn’t bring myself to be that honest. Something that I’m sure harps back to being at school, where we wan’t to appear well measured and like we know exactly what we’re doing, when in reality all we want is someone to tell us that it is all going to be okay. The reassurance to say we have made the right decisions. I’ve sometimes wondered if I’ve used education as a crux to deal with my anxiety, it’s a very structured environment with a defined beginning and end. I’ve not had to worry about “what now?” because I have a list of deadlines that tells me what essay is due in next. I’m a trained journalist but I’m likely never to practice as one. You need more than being good at writing and an MA in magazine journalism, it’s about who you know and as things stand I don’t know many people. I knew this before I started, but felt safe going back to uni. That said my journalism training is one of the best things I’ve ever decided to do and writing is one of the few places where I’ve really felt a sense of belonging and can fit in. I’m very grounded in youth work because it is something I’ve known for years, but it is also a profession where an increasing number of professionals expect youth workers to have a specific type of personality. I’ve had three jobs where I’ve found people who thought this way. It can be confusing, and adding in anxiety, can really make you wonder if you’re good enough or should even be there at all, because you’re not like person A.

And as I said earlier; Why change if you’re not broken?  I wish my 16 year old self knew that it’s okay to not have a clue because right now I really don’t know what to do next.

But we’re all still trying to figure it out really, aren’t we?

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Expectations: in conversation with my brain…

For context – I’m writing this – after weeks of feeling more depressed than I’ve felt in a long time. Summer is coming to an end and I’m looking ahead to autumn. I have The Proclaimers singing into my headphones, I’ve just finished listening to another episode of “My Dad Wrote A Porno” and I’ve dance-tidied my room to Blowzabella trying to make myself feel more “happy.” I don’t know why I feel this way, and if I did I’m sure I’d try my best to stop it. Depression to me is not being able to physically get out of bed, until the cats miaow loudly in your ear for breakfast, and even then it’s like climbing Mount Everest. You feel lost. You’re physically and emotionally exhausted. You want to talk to friends. You desperately want that interaction, yet you don’t know how to start the conversation you so desperately need. It’s not being able to adequately put into words the thoughts in your head, and for someone whose most recent degree is literally in words, that is a pretty scary prospect. Even since mental health became my job, I should know this stuff, but somehow, when it comes to my own mental health, I don’t. Or at least what I preach to others seems harder, if not impossible.

I’m always rushing about, most of us do, trying to achieve the next big thing, yo-yoing around the country certain I won’t break, looking for another project, planning the next place to visit and searching for an adventure. Two months ago the Mental Health Mates group almost staged an intervention because they saw I was doing too much, so gave me the “burn out” lecture – which to be fair – I needed at the time. Do we really give ourselves adequate time to just think? To not get caught up in life or the expectations of ourselves and others? Do we ever actually have a conversation with our brain? More often than not we don’t have the time to just be. Or if we do, it’s unwanted time and we wish we were doing something else. We’ve all been there. I know we have.

If we harp back 11/12 years, to when I was 18. I felt similarly lost as I do today. Before my 18th birthday, I was terrified of becoming an adult and the expectations this would bring. Most A Level results days bring joy, but mine just brought fear and anger that I should have done better. Why did you spend all of Year 13 so miserable Alice? I didn’t have the answer to that question then, and I don’t have much of an answer now. But I do know that expectations can be damaging, and the hype of becoming an adult and going to university (I wasn’t even moving away) wasn’t anything to fear, but at the time it was everything. When I was at my lowest, I extensively used a text service for young people, where I could text my worries to a youth worker who would listen and respond. This interaction became a lifeline and made A Levels more bearable. I was able to talk to someone, who wasn’t my parents, or a teacher, who seemed to just “get it.” I kept a detailed diary documenting the time,  charting the feelings of a teenager who was convinced she would fail her A Levels and was absolutely terrified about going to university. I was 18, but didn’t want to be, I remember texting one morning “I don’t feel like an adult. I haven’t achieved anything I should by now” And it was on that morning when it was suggested that I should speak to a doctor. The doctor, who then told me that I was too young to be depressed.

“Is the youth worker who told you to come here medically qualified?” She demanded.

A rhetorical question she already knew the answer to. I was stunned into silence, and left the doctors surgery with little, other than an already shaky confidence shattered.

Those words have stuck with me to this day. The days following that doctors visit I felt broken, lost and like I was too much of a burden for just trying to ask for help. I still had the text service though, and sometimes all you need is someone to listen, qualified or not.

What did I think I hadn’t achieved by that age? What did I think I should have done? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m in a similar predicament now. I’m turning 30 in a few months, and as with eighteen year old me, I’m convinced I haven’t done things I should have achieved. This written down sounds utterly ridiculous, because I know, more than I did eleven years ago, that comparisons with others mean little, we’re all on our own path and life certainly isn’t a race or something to win.

As young children, we’re taught to be competitive. The school sports days, that were just ritual humiliation for me, the endless exams or tests and relationships. If you haven’t got a massive circle of friends – certainly more so when you’re younger – I couldn’t give a toss now, you are seen as some kind of failure. When most of your friends are in relationships you constantly feel like you’re third wheeling. And the time exam marks are read out in science, making you feel ridiculed because physics is somehow beyond your brains capabilities. Whether you want these things to be a competition or not. They are.

There is also the opposite to this that, I’ve read referred to as “imposter syndrome,” when you believe things you’ve achieved should never have happened or that you are some kind of fraud. I know when good things have happened to me, because I’ve felt so low in the past, I’ve believed that they happened to the wrong person or that I’m not deserving of good things too. I remember being offered a job, and saying down the phone to the person who had just offered me the job, “are you sure?” as if there had been some kind of terrible mistake and that they meant to ring someone else. There had never been a mistake – I just didn’t believe it could be true – when I was so used to rejections. I once got a 1st for an essay, and was on the brink of asking my tutor to have it remarked, because I was convinced there had been an error and I didn’t want to deprive someone else of their good mark. Eventually I didn’t ask for it to be remarked, and accepted that I had done well and should be bloody proud.

In my early 20’s I looked up to someone, who was ten years older than me, and was unwittingly bad for my mental health. She was everything I thought I needed to be, both professionally and as a person. We’ll call her Belinda. “Why can’t I be more like Belinda?” I’d wonder, after another 2am phone conversation, where she disclosed more about her life than she should have, and I thought I was in some kind of exclusive club. I modelled my life on hers, when in reality I was nothing like her. She’d send me messages, and I would feel excited whenever I saw her name pop up on my phone. I didn’t just want to be like her, I basically wanted to be her. I soon realised that she didn’t really want to talk to me, we were never anything that real friends resemble and she was only keeping me around because she felt she had to and so I could essentially be used. It was a lesson. A lesson that taught me how sticky comparison can be and how detrimental to your mental health it can become. I was at one of my lowest points when she was in my life and vowed to keep people around who were only good for my brain in future. So far I seem to have stuck to that. If you’re in it, you’re probably one of them.

Concluding context: I’m now listening to Mamma Mia, I’ve moved from my desk to my bed to write the rest of this, my cat is asleep on the top of my wardrobe, I might start being able to chat to friends again and I’m feeling on the whole a bit happier. I’ve also had time to think and reflect, and have that chat with my brain, that many of us don’t have the time for. Expectations are everywhere. They are less obvious as an adult but they are still there. Social media is the worst enabler of this, making us believe who we should or shouldn’t be, but it is also the best enabler of helping us feel closer to our friends. The latter is definitely important when you’re going through a depressive episode.

Although, I’m still terrified about turning 30, but that’s totally normal right?! If anyone has any advice on the whole “turning 30” thing, I’d happily listen.

Make sure you look after you. And give yourself some time to just be when you don’t feel as “you” as you’d like. There really is a lot to be said for self-care, alongside using others as a sounding board to help you feel better. I’m also certain dips in mood are sometimes in sync amongst close friends, as with women and periods, or maybe that’s just me? Either way, it’s reassuring to know others feel as you do.

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How are you REALLY?!

A year ago, I was finishing my Masters in Magazine Journalism, unsure where I’d be in a year, who I’d meet and the direction my career would take. Up until then I had retrained three times before the age of 30 (and also failed to get a place on a PGCE, which was a good thing, I could never be a teacher.) I knew I could write, and it was something I could do it well, so journalism seemed like an obvious next step.

Eight months ago after the high of graduation for a third time was over, I set out to apply for jobs – anything that I could do – I went for. In the time before Christmas and New Year, I was writing job applications, while everyone else was planning New Year nights out. I was consumed by my future and probably looking back, pretty depressed. I was terrified of having to sign on again, and avoided that reality as much as I could. I have two MA’s, something that I’m still a little bit embarrassed about broadcasting to the world. I know that in some cases this makes me over qualified, but as always with so many of us, I don’t have the experience to meet the expectations of jobs I am qualified for.

In February this year, I found out that I had been successful in interviews and was offered two part time jobs, I was beside myself with happiness. I thought that things were finally starting to fall into place, that my hard work finally had paid off. “I GOT THE JOB” I exclaimed to friends over text, who were equally as happy as me, knowing what I had worked for and that some milestones are harder to achieve than others. “YES!!!” texted one friend, with the most emojis I’ve ever seen in one message. She shared my joy too.

Last week, that world, where I had a routine and a full diary, crashed around me. I found out, over email that I’d lost one of those jobs, a job that I thought I loved. In an organisation where I thought I was respected and valued. I’m 29, and thankfully I’ve never gone through job loss on this scale before, I’ve been in tricky situations where I’ve left, but I’ve never been told by an employer that they ‘don’t want me anymore.’ It feels like I’m grieving for something that now isn’t there and it hurts.

Recently several people have asked, “how are you?” and like we all do, because we’re polite and don’t want to make conversations all about us, I’ve responded with “I’m fine,” when I know I’m not. People who understand that “I’m fine” is a massive lie, then ask me again, “how are you Alice?” and by the second or third time, I begin to tell them how I’m really feeling. We are conditioned to not cause a fuss, not be a downer on the conversation or the centre of attention. But, if we are to feel better or at least lighten the load, we have to be all of those things. I’m all for writing about bouncy parts of my life “I graduated!” “I did this at uni!” “My cats are awesome!” but sometimes, things aren’t so great and that’s okay too. We are, as a society scared of appearing vulnerable, not being able to cope or being weak, but being able to stand up and say “I don’t think I can deal with this,” is often one of the strongest things you can do. As someone who preaches in my job, about the need for self care, looking after ourselves and talking to others, I am the worst enabler of this. But if I can’t do it, how can the rest of society?

Moving forward, I’m going to be really honest about how I actually feel (sorry friends, not really..), I’m going to actually make time for myself and stick to it and I’m going to accept times when I’m not okay. I have a lot of self awareness, that has improved with age, although I still haven’t quite got the hang of knowing when to stop. A few months ago I wrote about Self-care and now it’s time to start working down that list. I really am grateful I can write this, that I have people to talk to and I have support, because I know there are so many people who don’t. You only have to volunteer at the Samaritans for as little as a week to realise that. I did two years there, and whenever I’m having bad days, I think of the people who used to speak to me at Samaritans, who like me were having a bit of a tough time, but were so grateful to hear a voice at the other end of the phone. A voice who made them the centre of attention, allowed them to be vulnerable and listened. Everything we avoid, is central to calls at Samaritans but it shouldn’t just be reserved for mental health helplines. We should be able to express how we really are everywhere. At work. At uni. With friends. With family. At the shops. It should be as normal as discussing the weather. I always think, if someone comments on how sunny/rainy/snowy it is, they are really avoiding chatting about mental health.

Talk to your mates tonight. Reach out. It’s important.

Cats are also great to chat to if you want to hide from people for a bit…

 

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Fitting in or standing out? SEN, education and inclusion.

I was diagnosed with dyspraxia when I was around eight years old, I had, in theory time to access the right support, time to understand how my brain works, and was lucky, so I’m told, to be diagnosed as a child. I didn’t have to navigate the minefield of adult diagnosis, as many of my friends have, and I knew I was dyspraxic before I went to university.

As a child I was on the SEN register and had a statement for Special Educational Needs, that at the time baffled me. I was deeply embarrassed by these facts and in denial that I even had dyspraxia at all. I didn’t understand why I was different and I found “fitting in” just as challenging as those without a diagnosis. I had a name describing why I was different but I refused to accept or acknowledge this.

I rarely talk about what being categorised as an “SEN” child felt like, partly because I try to block that part of my life out and sometimes I find it too hard to describe. I also realise it is something that should be talked about more, if we are to understand, we have to talk.

Recently I took part in some training at work about autism but it could also be applied to all of neurodiversity. This training focused on looking at “autistic behaviours” and teaching young people to fit in with “social norms.” Is this right? Should we expect people to conform because that’s what everyone else does? Would we expect someone in wheelchair to use the stairs because that’s the norm? We would not. And we shouldn’t think of dyspraxia, dyslexia, autism or any other hidden disability differently. It absolutely isn’t right to make people fit a mould. What does inclusion mean when leading organisations are making assumptions about neurodiversity? Is it really understood what it is like to grow up as an SEN child? So many questions and I don’t have all of the answers.

I remember, when I was about fourteen, being taken out of my favourite lesson of History, to go to the special educational needs coordinators classroom. They had apparently noticed that, at the time, I didn’t have as many friends as my peer group and that I was socially awkward & isolated. I was quiet, pretty withdrawn and trying to make sense of who I was, alongside being a teenager and trying to deal with undiagnosed anxiety. It’s no wonder I didn’t want to talk to people. It was decided, that I needed to develop my social skills, so without discussion with me or my parents, I was taken out of history to meet with another girl in my year, who was also SEN, to do puzzles. Puzzles that were well below my top set English ability. This girl was nice enough, but we didn’t have anything in common, other than both appearing different. We didn’t have the same interests, we weren’t in the same classes and I didn’t relate to her, who the puzzles seemed more geared to. We were both SEN but our needs were so different. A lot of the young people the learning support department worked with, struggled across the board academically, and rightly so needed adequate academic support. I, in comparison, was not an all rounder but I was also academic. I did well in humanities, English and essay based subjects, but struggled with maths, science and anything practical. I couldn’t remember formulas for algebraic equations but could recall German vocab perfectly. This is an experience that is shared by many people with dyspraxia, varying strengths and difficulties within education are common. The SEN department wasn’t used to people like me, despite dyspraxia affecting between 2% and 6% of the population, meaning that there will likely be at least one person with dyspraxia in every school class. In my big 1,500 strong secondary school there would have been hundreds of us. I remember visiting an old primary school teacher, post university, who described me as their “success story” because people like me, who grew up in the 90’s weren’t expected to go to university. This upsets me, although I recognise that university isn’t for everyone, being given the opportunity and expectations is obviously better than the alternative of being written off. It’s always better to have the option, even if, for whatever reason you decide it’s not for you. I was, in a sense written off but because my dyspraxia makes me driven, resilient and determined, I didn’t listen. I do wonder if I wasn’t diagnosed so young and had gone through school being judged on academic performance alone rather than a diagnosis, would the expectations of me have been different?

But I did have a diagnosis, and in the process of getting one saw more medical professionals by age ten than most adults do in their life time. I remember a series of hospital visits and constant testing, not all in relation to the difficulties my dyspraxia presented but also for my nystagmus and hearing loss too. In 1996, an educational psychologist discovered through a rigorous and exhausting testing process, that there were “large differences” between my verbal and performance IQ. Having such a difference in these IQ’s was, according to the educational psychologist, “out of the ordinary” and was estimated to only occur in two out of a thousand children. My verbal and writing skills were assessed to be above average and my perceptual organisation and processing speeds were assessed to be well below average for my age. It was concluded that my “good verbal ability should enable her to succeed in much of her work at school but her non verbal weaknesses will impact on her attainments.” He then goes on to say; “she is likely to need help to make the most of her verbal skills to overcome or bypass such difficulties as they emerge.”

A statement for special educational needs meant that I had access to help & support that the original report in 1996 suggested I may need, 25% extra time in exams and annual reviews. Extra time in exams, that carried through to university, ensured I had enough time to process the information and to write everything down. I never had any specific difficulties with handwriting but my writing speed was slower than average. To begin with, I did my exams in a separate room, but I hated this. It made me stand out, and I just wanted to be like everyone else. I eventually sat some exams in the main hall with the rest of my classes, but stayed on after everyone left to continue my exam into extra time. This was disruptive and still didn’t resolve the issue of standing out. My desire to “fit in” at the time, seemed to outweigh the necessity of any support that would help me. In early secondary school days, I was allocated a support assistant who sat next to me in science and geography lessons. A support assistant that I quickly made it clear I didn’t need. She used to interfere with setting up science experiments and would read over my shoulder, which I found off putting. My statement allocated a certain number of hours of support, and instead of exploring what might help me, I was given support I didn’t need or want. Extra tuition in maths from a younger age would have probably been more beneficial. I did eventually get a tutor at GCSE, helping me to literally scrape a C by one mark. My proudest exam grade ever!

Annual reviews took place termly, in primary school without me but in secondary school I was more part of the process. During a review meeting people who were involved in my education, sat around a table and discussed my progress and any support needs going forward, it was also a time when targets were agreed. My targets didn’t change for years, which says a lot about how effective the process was in the early 2000’s. Year after year my annual reviews set the targets, to develop an understanding of non-verbal social interaction, improve fine and gross motor skills including balance and spatial perception and to continue to develop numeracy skills. In my case my parents, educational psychologist, head teacher, head of house, form tutor and special educational needs coordinator were involved in my review meetings. I was then invited in towards the end to give my input and make comments about how I felt school was going for me. As a teenager, this was quite a daunting process, being presented with a table full of professionals, who appeared to be dissecting my abilities and making recommendations for the future. On one occasion when asked who I wanted as an advocate to “fight my corner” I responded with “I’m capable of speaking for myself thank you very much” – a response that was neither expected or understood. I was really saying that I wanted to be listened to, and by year 11, the SEN department appeared to listen to everyone but me, the very person who knows my needs better than anyone. I still giggle now at the assumption that I couldn’t speak for myself and my answer, clearly correcting this.

The juxtaposition of fitting in or standing out is a complicated one, and as my experiences show there isn’t an easy solution. Every teenager I come across, disability or not wants to fit in, and social media makes fitting in even more challenging than in my day when Instagram, snapchat and Facebook didn’t exist or was very primitive. I first started using Facebook and Myspace in 6th form, but it certainly wasn’t a huge part of my life then as it is for young people now. I would hope that schools today are more understanding of inclusion and the need to listen to young people, there is certainly more awareness around differences than when I was at school.

The level of awareness I have now, would have helped in those early days when I didn’t understand myself, but as with most things this is down to time, age and maturity. I’m always in awe when I see teenagers talk openly about their dyspraxia, as I know I wouldn’t have been able to do that at their age. This alone, demonstrates how far we have come. I mentioned earlier that we have to talk to understand, and back in the 90’s/2000’s, I didn’t hear anyone talking about disability or difficulties they had at school, it was very much the elephant in the room. As young people begin to talk more openly, we’ll hopefully develop a culture of young people writing agendas for their review meetings, outlining exactly what will help them, being involved in creating SEN spaces that don’t feel embarrassing for young people to go to and feeling they can fit in, in the same way that they sometimes stand out.

At almost 30, I fit in more now than ever before because I’ve met people who actually understand me. I hope todays young people find this belonging a long time before they reach 30 and that they are able to shape the future of SEN provision in our education system and beyond.

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