March 9th 2016:
Every year we facilitate teaching to Leicester DClinPsy trainees about disempowerment, gender and social action to coincide with International Women’s Day. The past four years, we have tried to bring the ‘social action’ element to life by making it a bit more ‘action’. This has involved getting out of the classroom and utilising the teaching day and the trainee group as a resource to local people. Over the years we have built relationships with community groups in Braunstone, a residential area within the city of Leicester.
Until the 1920s, Braunstone was mainly farmland. However, as the population of Leicester increased and the city expanded there was a demand for affordable housing. A large council estate was built in Braunstone as part of a ‘slum clearance’ programme in 1936 in response to this demand. Within the wider community, Braunstone has seen as a deprived area and has been associated with negative views and unhelpful discourses.
We had, on previous years, worked with local stakeholders to facilitate an International Women’s Day fayre that was about bringing women together with organisations who could support them. However, that was not possible this year as the cafe it used to be held in had been closed. The café was a social enterprise run from a small community centre and, this year, central government budget cuts meant that the city council handed over the right to manage several community centres to independent organisations and voluntary groups under a scheme known as ‘community asset transfer’. This included the centre the café was based in, meaning when its management was handed over, the café had to close. Around this time, other community centres elsewhere in the city were closed completely and the buildings sold.
Instead of the IWD fayre, the trainees’ idea was to do a Leicester-based walk collecting stories about the impact of homelessness, food poverty and welfare reform to support the work of #walkthetalk2015 and Psychologists Against Austerity (PAA).
For a couple of weeks before the walk, Leicester had been enjoying wall-to-wall sunshine and on previous years we have been lucky with the weather… Not so, the morning of the 9th March. We awoke to grey skies, icy rain and several worried texts from trainees wondering whether it was wise to continue with our social action. We concluded that people most effected by homelessness, food poverty and benefits reform could not opt out when the conditions became inclement and agreed to press on with the proviso that any who were worried about the impact on their health could form a ‘base team’ which would stay at uni and compile the introduction to a ‘dossier’ of narratives about the 3 themes and their psychological impact.
Ten of us visited four different community support organisations. They told us of:
- how the privatisation of the probation service had affected their services to women involved in the Criminal Justice system (or at risk of).
- the impact of the current climate on staff: housing support staff on long term sick due to being distressed by having to turn people away and ‘gatekeep’ resources
- reductions in staff by as much as 50% due to cuts to voluntary sector funding
- navigating hostile and complicated and ever changing systems to get support.
- running out of energy for seeking support due to being turned away so frequently
- feeling that their voices were not heard by those in power
- sanctions meaning people aren’t able to eat and become emaciated and experiencing many physical health problems
- fleeing domestic violence but also having mental health problems and there being only 1 mental health bed in a refuge locally, so one woman was placed in a mixed homeless hostel where violent men and other offenders were housed.
- fear about the imminent transition to Universal Credit and concern about having to make difficult decisions between paying for school uniforms or shoes for their children and saving enough of the UC payment for rent.
- worries about the future for their children, ‘things are getting worse’.
One woman from the community we met was moved to email us after to say that government ‘pledges to support victims and survivors of childhood abuse are meaningless when they close down all the services survivors rely on to recover and feel part of society as adults. When they close hostels, refuges, cut benefits, cut restorative justice services, mental health services, it’s abuse survivors who suffer… living in poor conditions, using food banks, no heating, no disability care, no emotional support, no hostel places, isolation…’
Trainees and facilitators went back to the Uni in the afternoon to collate the stories into a document and reflect on the impact that the day had had on us. We discovered that we had heard stories relating to all 5 of the themes identified by PAA in their briefing paper about the psychological consequences of austerity (https://psychagainstausterity.wordpress.com/psychological-impact-of-austerity-briefing-paper/). We used these themes to structure a document forming a dossier of evidence which was taken by #Walkthetalk2015 to Westminster to a meeting they had been invited to with Luciana Berger MP, Shadow Minister for Mental Health.
The social action teaching day exhausting; although more emotionally tiring than physically. One of the side effects of work at the level of the social context can be feelings of being overwhelmed by the extent of the marginalisation and powerlessness of oppressed groups. We were all moved by the stories that were shared with us that day, and felt humbled that the community felt able to share them with us. Asked what they would like us to do, the people we spoke to in Braunstone said ‘come back’; they were keen to see how we used their stories. We are hoping to meet with them to tell them about the meeting in Westminster and plan what happens next. We are also planning to spread the word about this way of teaching to other courses.
As facilitators we have very much appreciated the investment that trainees have given to these teaching days, even if they are not convinced by Community Psychology initially. Each year there are a few trainees who know a lot about CP and are very supportive. There are usually a larger group, however, who know a bit about CP but who prefer to stick to other psychological models. Over the course of offering this teaching, we have been struck by how willing Trainees are to suspend their scepticism and take up our invitation to work with communities. Some have even reported to us that their opinions about CP changed on the basis of just this one day’s teaching, which is humbling to witness. Trainees’ time, energy and enthusiasm for critical analysis and social justice is a resource that can be utilised and very much appreciated by communities if care is taken to ensure that we are walking alongside them.
Suzanne Elliott and Peter Beardsworth, March 2016