Introducing Ben

In his mid-twenties, Ben had been dealing with mental health difficulties for most of his life and in his own words had “never worked”. He had held a couple of voluntary positions, but despite qualifications in animal care he had struggled to find employment and found himself “drifting in life day to day, unfulfilled, without a purpose or even a reason to get up”.

Realising that it’s ok to ask for a helping hand when needed, Ben felt that he “needed to take the first steps to make a positive change”. After looking around for the right support he was referred to HeadsUp, with whom he started in July 2019. He was looking forward to moving towards a better quality of life, although with some trepidation. What if this didn’t work out? After making the decision to get support, how would he feel if he was unsuccessful?

Ultimately, Ben decided that the risk was worth taking: for him, getting that “helping hand” to move towards employment was going to help with his confidence and self-belief. The “can-do attitude” would lead to an income, the chance to enjoy his hobbies, and a more financially comfortable home life.

From his first meeting with a Peer Support Worker (PSW), Ben started to feel like he was moving forward. She invited the Employer Engagement Manager (EEM) to meet with Ben, and between the three of them they looked at Ben’s aspirations and worked out a route to get there. One of his interests is palaeontology, but Ben was not sure his qualifications would get him into this field. At the same time, he felt strongly that getting “a job” would help him in so many ways that this should be his first goal.

Alongside the support of his PSW and the EEM, Ben took part in the three-day HeadsUp workshop, which focusses on well-being and self-care strategies. Participants normally finish the workshop with higher confidence and self-belief, and Ben was no exception. In the background the EEM had contacted a famous palaeontologist, Dr Dean Lomax, who happily provided advice and encouragement to Ben to help with his longer-term goal. Not only was this information practically useful, but it reinforced Ben’s new belief that asking for a helping hand could lead to quite extraordinary results.

As Ben’s journey with HeadsUp continued, he was encouraged to attend a recruitment day for the Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust. He managed to do this on his own, and picked up an application pack for a role as a cleaner. Over a series of meetings he was helped to complete the forms- something he had not had to do before, and which caused him some concerns. He was successful and, after passing an interview, needed a further helping hand with completing forms and providing references. Having not worked before he struggled to get a professional reference, but with a bit of support both from HeadsUp and the employer he was able to overcome this hurdle and start his first job- as a hospital cleaner.

Ben is rightly proud of this. He now has that reason to get up, and knows that people depend on him. He’s proud of his role within the wider care of patients and knows that what he does matters, helping to keep vulnerable people safe. He now has less anxiety about finance, and is able to enjoy time both with his partner and on his hobbies- including historical re-enactments and sword-fighting!

Ben’s journey with HeadsUp didn’t end when he started work though, with him choosing to take up the offer of In-Work Support. He had felt supported by a network of people on his side, and wanted to maintain this as he embarked on a new stage of his life. Now, nine months after starting work, he is feeling positive and fulfilled, “a productive member of society” in his words. This has had a knock-on effect in all aspects of his life, and so he says that he would “absolutely recommend” HeadsUp to anyone who feels they need that helping hand.

Talking about resilience

All our lives have been massively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that have been placed upon us all. At the beginning everything that was happening was totally unbelievable and scary. For so many of us, it resulted in us keeping a more than watchful eye on all the media coverage and the government’s daily reports. So many rules, so much guidance, so many statistics, so many theories, so much of the unknown that both immediately, and on a daily basis, changed our lives and the world that we know.

Several of the participants that I have worked with have found the media coverage, the government rules and restrictions not only exhausting but incredibly anxiety provoking. Anxiety that has led them to have little focus and to worry about what is happening in this now different world. During our Peer Support Worker meetings, we have discussed the negative impact of media reports and about not exposing ourselves to a constant barrage of information. Often the information is unnecessary to read and can negatively impact our mental ill health and wellbeing.

Additionally, we have discussed the fabrication of stories that circulate regarding many worldwide issues and we have talked about how these types of stories can affect how we feel and how they can may make us feel angry and resentful towards others.

Successfully together, we have been able to talk about what, as individuals, we need to know from the current pandemic situation. Scheduling in times in our day or week when to watch or listen to the news allows for respite from the constant news reports. Limiting our time on social media again reduces our exposure to often biased opinions of others and the fabrication of other people’s situations. Looking at what provokes or enhances our participants anxieties and working with them to look at a management plan to reduce exposure to unhelpful situations has helped people feel more in control in a difficult time.

Peer Support Workers also need to find the ‘new normal’

This last fortnight has been a struggle for me. It’s all change – again. Since March, my children have been safe at home – needing home-schooling whilst I juggle working from home, being their teacher and being their mum. Needless to say, this has caused a certain level of chaos at one time or another! Fortunately, my two are old enough to work independently – assuming I can detach one from his Lego and the other from his Xbox!

The summer holidays continued in much the same fashion – without the schoolwork, but with the addition of masks. We became accustomed to the “new normal” and carried on. We even managed a few days by the sea (avoiding as many people as possible!)

But then September rolled around…. It is now, apparently, safe for our children to go back to school and, speaking as an ex teacher, fair play to all teachers who have had to create not one but two completely different ways of educating pupils whilst navigating constantly moving goalposts and their own personal & family lives too.

So, in the first week of September, I waved my two boys off on the school bus (from inside the house as I was told that it would be embarrassing for me to be outside!) and realised that the world had changed again. My youngest was starting not only a new way of learning, but a new school, as he headed off to high school for the first time. I had entered a new stage of motherhood. No more school gate, sports days, coffee mornings. They aren’t little boys anymore and they disappear into their own world of school and mates, leaving me watching from the side-lines.

I now had uninterrupted time to do my job. I could focus solely on my participants instead of bribing boys with snacks whilst I made my phone calls. I’d been looking forward to this. But now it’s here…. I miss the old “new normal”. I don’t like the new “new normal”. So, I’ve struggled.

But I’ve also realised that that’s okay. We’re all struggling. Nobody has a clue what “normal” is supposed to look like anymore! All we can do is our best (whilst we wash our hands and wear masks). Protect each other. Remember, we’re all struggling. So, just be kind to others. Be kind to yourself.

Making meetings matter

You may recall from an earlier blog that some of our participants have been helped to access funding to buy digital equipment. This is of course a fantastic thing, but if you’ve never used a tablet or a smartphone before, what do you do next?

Fortunately our Development and Skills Officers had already put together a “basic IT skills” package, and have been able to adapt that to make it relevant to different products. With a few small changes to the session it’s possible to get the same learning outcomes: an email account, an understanding of how to use it and an introduction to how to use the internet to find jobs.
We identified that it would be incredibly important to help participants set up their new “tech” from the start, to give as positive an introduction to the equipment as possible; but how to do that during a lock down? After a bit of investigation, and following the guidance of NHS England, it was decided that socially-distanced outdoor meetings could take place when absolutely necessary. With a bit of planning, our DSOs have been able to meet participants in the Great Outdoors to introduce them to their new kit.

The results have been incredible. Helping someone to access the internet for the first time is quite humbling, particularly when you see how proud they are of their achievements. To then build on that success, helping to create a CV for example, and showing someone that they’ve not been “left behind” during the pandemic, is a source of pride for our DSOs.

We’ll be carrying on with these meetings for as long as we can, and planning is underway to continue delivering this style of session throughout the winter. As always with HeadsUp, we’ll be looking to adapt our delivery to reflect the needs of our participants.

Meet Laura from Rochford

Laura had been out of work for two and a half years and was job searching before joining HeadsUp. She struggled socially and felt anxious about the prospect of finding employment. Her only support at that point was from her work coach who invited Laura to a Job Centre Plus open day where she first heard about HeadsUp. She felt that often her mental health problems and the challenges she faced weren’t really understood but after talking to one of the HeadsUp’s Peer Support Workers (PSW) she thought ‘this is great, someone with some understanding’. She reflected that she had suffered with mental health problems since she was a teenager and found it ‘quite refreshing’ speaking to someone that understood how she feels and found it ‘comforting and helpful’.

Initially Laura was worried about ‘speaking up and asking for help’ and felt anxious about the whole thing but found that her PSW reassured her straight away. Her goals on joining HeadsUp were to ‘no longer feel anxious about job searching, looking for work or everything social related’. Her PSW encouraged and reassured her in her efforts to achieve her goals and where necessary made some first steps on her behalf, such as making initial contact with a college to enroll Laura on a course.

Laura worked on feeling less anxious about going into the working world by focusing on her mental health and wellbeing with her PSW in parallel with looking for and applying for work. Her PSW helped Laura to face her anxiety about meeting or seeing people by slowly changing their meeting place from the same quiet café with a table tucked away to meeting in different café’s. Laura described how being pushed out of her comfort zone in a safe and supported way enabled her confidence and self-esteem to grow, commenting that ‘[my] confidence and self-esteem has gone a long long way’.

Since taking these steps Laura’s family and friends have all noticed the difference in her, seeing her get back to her old ways, her confidence growing, and she even found herself smiling more. Laura said she is feeling ‘more confident, [my] self-esteem [has] improved and can now push myself more and grow as a person. [HeadsUp] Made me feel supported and comforted by being supported by someone who truly understands’.

Laura is most proud of going to college, going to 3 places in person to apply for a job, and having 2 interviews, these are all things she would never have done before. She had been job searching and thinking about going back to college, whilst still receiving support for her wellbeing from her PSW. Laura completed a wide set of Skill Pods with a Development and Skills Officer (DSO), including CV Skills, Cover Letter Support, Job Searching Skills, Online Applications and Interview Techniques Skills, all making her feel more confident in her job search journey.

The Interview Techniques Skill Pod came at just the right time as a couple of weeks later Laura had an interview for a job and could put what she learnt in to practice. Laura was successful in her interview and was invited in for a 3-hour work trial and shortly after got offered the job! Laura was ecstatic and will now be working within a busy kitchen at a popular sea front restaurant two days a week with the opportunity to increase her hours. She reflected on how proud she felt to get this role explaining it was her first job in 16 years and that her family members were so happy and proud they nearly cried. Laura loved sharing this news with the HeadsUp team and thanked everyone for helping her achieve more than she ever thought she could.

When asked would Laura recommend the HeadsUp service she said ‘100%! I would tell them they can be supported by someone that really understands, I would tell them I went from not leaving the house to meeting in different places and going on courses.’