Friday, 28 January 2011

Maytree: a lifeline for those in despair

Yesterday morning I found myself knocking on a very ordinary-looking door on a terrace house in Finsbury Park. But I soon discovered that since 2002, some extraordinary work has been going on behind that door. Lives which had fallen apart and which were deemed unliveable and unbearable were pieced back together, and people were set back on the path to stability and contentment.

Sue Hessel and I have been campaigning on the issue of the Archway Bridge for a few months now, and we have been surprised and delighted by the response we have been continuing to get from the community. A residents’ group is re-forming to help campaign alongside us. A woman, who had previously jumped from a bridge and survived, contacted me to say that she wanted to get involved with our campaign. And just this week, we were contacted by Paddy Bazeley (pictured above with Sue and I), who is the founder of Finsbury Park’s ‘Maytree’, a ‘sanctuary for the suicidal’.

I have to admit to having some slight trepidations about our visit – what would a ‘sanctuary for the suicidal’ be like, exactly? As it turned out my fears were entirely unfounded. A more homely, welcoming and warm place I couldn’t imagine; a place where guests (not ‘patients’, nor indeed ‘clients’ or ‘service users’) can stay for five days and take things at their own speed. There’s no set programme, no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and no money is paid by guests because the centre is funded by donations and relies largely on volunteers. It has been shortlisted for a Guardian Charity Award for the last two years.

When guests leave, they are given a goodbye letter, which many people have said is something they take out and re-read at ‘wobbly’ moments. They will also be ‘linked in’ with services that will benefit them: Paddy told us that around 75% of people who kill themselves have had no help from or contact with mental health services.

Paddy excitedly told us that they are planning to open another centre in South London, and yet another in Bristol, thus spreading the good work of the team to yet more people in need. The people they help come from all backgrounds, and I asked Paddy what she thought the reason was for the three people who jumped to their deaths in as many weeks at the end of last year were all men, in their late 20s or early 30s? Paddy made an interesting assertion that the female suicide rate may be higher than national statistics would suggest because coroners are more likely to record an ‘open verdict’ with women, possibly because men are usually seen as the more likely gender to commit suicide.

“We have space for four people at any one time,” commented Paddy. “At the moment we have two empty beds. We are just down the road from the Archway Bridge. People need to know we are here.”

By a strange coincidence, the aforementioned woman who had contacted us about using her own experience of attempting suicide to lend weight to our campaign was herself helped by Maytree. I will keep her anonymous, but these are her words:

“I have experienced suicidal feelings numerous times since I was a teenager and often ended up in hospital following attempts on my life. Desperate to avoid a repeat of such occurrences I sought out a different kind of crisis help. In the past I had been locked up on psychiatric wards with no psychological help during the darkest of times.

I came across Maytree and after an assessment was allowed to stay for four nights. I have never experienced such a hopeful, loving and compassionate place. The staff - paid therapists and a wonderful diverse and excellently trained set of dedicated volunteers - listened to what I had to say, helped me to explore my distress and gave me a gentle space in which to figure out what I needed to do next in order to pull myself back towards life.

I shall never again underestimate the profound effect kindness, empathy, and straight forward human connection can have on the soul at the most desperate of times. Maytree was more than a sanctuary for me, it fed enough life back to me that I left with a renewed appetite for it.

I really appreciate the work you're doing towards this cause.”

Sue Hessel, my fellow campaigner, and also a counsellor, was hugely impressed by the set-up at Maytree. Sue said “What’s wonderful about Maytree is that it’s about meeting need. It isn’t run as a business with layers of bureaucracy, or with making money as the object. This is how things used to be before the NHS began to be taken apart, and it’s how things should be now: organic and with solid founding principles.”

We continue to demand that TfL, the police, Haringey Council, English Heritage, the Samaritans, NHS Haringey and the engineers with the net solution sit down around a table and make 2011 the year when these tragic and unnecessary deaths finally come to an end.

As well as a net to catch anyone who jumped, we are campaigning for the free ‘SOS’ phone through to the Samaritans be reinstalled. As Sue memorably put it yesterday “All we are asking for is a ‘phone like you get every few hundred yard on the motorway. It seems we can deal with vehicle breakdowns but not people breakdowns.”

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Food, fat and feminism

I'm just back from the Progressive Women Resolution Party, where guest speaker Susie Orbach, author of 'Fat is a Feminist Issue' kicked off by saying that she didn't believe in 'resolutions' She pointed out that most women's new year's resolution is to diet and lose weight, something she herself decided not to do any more when she was in her twenties. (Please note: she is a very slim woman, or 'waif-like' as the only man in the audience commented).

Orbach argued that one of the West's biggest exports is body hatred, and she cited examples such as the rhinoplasty carried out in Singapore, where women undergo surgery to have 'western' noses.

Research has shown that women and girls 'check in with themselves' in a negative way about their bodies ever fifteen minutes. Orbach blames the diet industry, an industry, she says, which relies on failure. She said "we need to be exposing industries who are making money out of making us feel shit. And we need to challenge each other's complicity."

I asked her whether women are not, in many ways, their own worst enemies. Do we not 'police' each other's eating, appearance and weight? There was agreement that this is the case, but that we should always challenge this and make it clear that it is not an acceptable way to treat one another.

One thing Orbach said really stuck with me. It was about how girls learn to mimic their mother's eating habits, and how it is obvious that a daughter who sees her Mum has a fucked-up relationship with food will learn to have issues around eating, too. I think this is certainly the case for me, and something I have been very much aware of trying not to pass on to my own daughter. Whether I have succeeded or not remains to be seen.

A couple of audience members challenged Orbach, pointing out that there is an obesity crisis, and shouldn't we be advocating healthy eating? Orbach rejects the notions of Body Mass Index, saying that some of the people involved with coming up with it were from the diet industry. She said that when the school her kids went to 'banned' biscuits and so on in packed lunches, she went in to complain, saying that kids need foods with quickly-releasing energy, and that the school shouldn't be labelling foods as 'bad' as that actually makes them taboo, and as a result, alluring.

One idea she had which made a lot of sense to me was to train health visitors, midwives and teachers about how parents can pass on a healthy, balanced approach to food, rather than their own issues. She pointed out this would cost very little to do but would have huge benefits in terms of self-esteem and cutting down on the number of people with eating disorders.

As part of her campaign 'Endangered Species' (the endangered species being women who are completely comfortable in and happy with their own bodies) she is challenging the advertising industry to stop filling women's - and, increasingly, men's heads with messages saying that they must lose weight, adapt their appearances - increasingly through surgery - and spend a lot of money before they can be allowed to be happy with themselves.

I would completely agree. Just a couple of days ago, I was speaking with a female friend about the hideous messages we get from advertising. My friend cited the example of a Special K ad a few years ago, which had a song in it which said "Don't let your life go to waste!" In other words, if you are not skinny, your life is wasted. Nice.

I also recalled an ad I'd seen when I was about 5 years old - possibly younger. Again, it was for Special K (hmm...might be time to boycott Kelloggs...), which said that "if you can pinch more than an inch, it's time to eat 'Special K'."

"Mummy, what's an inch?" I asked. She showed me. I lifted my t-shirt and pinched my skin. I was fat. I need to diet. The TV had told me so - it must be true. I can honestly pin-point that moment as being the one where I became aware that my body was something to worry about, rather than just to live in, at ease. I'm hoping to delay my daughter's own 'Special K' moment for a good few years yet - though in an ideal world she would remain oblivious to such malign pressures, and be confident in her body for life.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Marching on the Civic Centre

Tonight I joined approximately 400 people as we marched from Turnpike Lane to Wood Green Civic Centre, ahead of the Full Council Meeting. Organised by the unions, it was a peaceful though passionate demo, headed up by three 'grim reapers' who had the faces of Clegg, Cameron and Featherstone. Behind them, Homes for Haringey staff carried a full-sized coffin. Then followed a rally outside the Civic Centre. We'll be back next month, no doubt.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Advice to ignore...

Today's 'news' that babies should be given solids before 6 months is hardly the earth-shattering announcement it is being hailed as being.

I have lost count of how many times the supposed 'official' advice has changed about what pregnant women should and shouldn't eat and drink, and how babies should be fed. All the conflicting advice does is confuse women and worry them that they are doing something wrong.

Take the advice about eating peanuts. When I was pregnant in 2006, pregnant women weren't allowed to look at a picture of a peanut lest it meant their offspring were born with two heads and with a tendency to vote Tory. Or something. Now it's the law that every pregnant woman eats lots of peanuts to ensure her baby doesn't have a peanut allergy and I'm sure peanuts would be provided on the NHS if there was any money left. (Unless the advice has changed again. It probably has. But that rather proves my point).

As for baby-rearing advice, there's a new fad along every five minutes. Being part of the Keep Haringey Breastfeeding Campaign, I am in contact with lots of mums and babies. I've learnt about 'Elimination Communication' (that's making little noises and holding the baby over a potty - reusable nappies are SO three years ago, apparently). Then there's baby-led weaning: present thy sprog with a veritable smorgasbord of edible delights, and then sit back and see what they opt for. They reached for a Silk Cut? Then light it for them - baby knows best!

And what about 'Sling Meets'. "What's a sling meet when it's at home?" asked I, clueless. "Do you go to the park and chuck steaks about?" (I appreciate that gem of a joke is best told orally). Nope - the mums meet up to chat and adjust each other's baby slings - pushchairs are verboten.

So...what do we learn from all this? Not to get too wound up or take too much notice to the latest advice, I reckon. My French ante-natal teacher summed things up perfectly: talking about the diet advice and the long list of 'banned' foods for pregnant women, she commented (imagine French accent, please) "Do you think French women don't eat unpasteurised cheese for nine months? Please. The French economy would collapse!"

Perhaps every fad, headline-grabbing finding and new piece of advice should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt...although certainly not more than 6g a day (probably changing to 4g next week).